a New Jersey sixth-grader threw together a paper on the flags
of French-speaking countries, he flunked the homework assignment,
but never lost interest in the flags.
flag has a story. It's sort of a snapshot of what people want to
say about themselves," said Donald Healy, who was that boy
and who now, as an adult, works as a computer specialist designing
databases for the state of New Jersey.
is a past president of a North American association of vexillologists,
"flag geeks" who spend their spare time studying flags
and their symbolism. "Vexillology" comes from the word
"vexillum," a square flag of the ancient Roman cavalry.
the mid-1990s, at an international congress of vexillology in Warsaw,
Poland, a hundred flag geeks hunkered down to hear Healy talk about
Native American tribal flags.
sort of blew away everybody in the lecture hall because nobody knew
about them. Here was a whole realm of flags that had never before
been seen by these people," Healy said during a phone interview
from his home in New Jersey.
and Peter Orenski co-authored a book titled "Native American
Flags," containing 183 tribal flags, to be released this month.
first documented use of flags by Native American tribes dates back
to the Civil War. Five tribes that had been forced to move to Oklahoma's
Indian Territory fought with the Confederacy under their own banner.
The Choctaw flag still contains element of that Civil War banner,
Arapaho, on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, designed one of the
first of the modern Native American tribal flags. The idea for the
flag, which was adopted in 1956, surfaced as a way to honor war
Arapaho flag contains seven stripes of red, white and black. The
red symbolizes the people, the black symbolizes strength in the
face of death and the white represents knowledge to be passed on
to the young, according to information on a tribal Web site.
circle, within a white triangle, is divided into two parts. The
circle represents the world, while the white line, which divides
the circle into two semi-circles, represents the Great Spirit.
addition to proclaiming tribal identity, flags are a tool for expressing
sovereign status, Healy said.
Native American tribes began adopting flag designs in the 1970s
and '80s. The explosion in designs seems to have been triggered
by a series of landmark federal statutes that strengthen tribal
self-government and sovereignty rights.
proliferation of casino gaming also propelled some tribes to design
heard of dozens of instances where the reason for adopting a flag
was 'we needed something to fly outside our casino,'" Healy
Native American flags, Healy and Orenski have their personal favorites.
Northern Cheyenne flag is simple, crisp, full of meaning and one
of the best designs on the continent," Healy said.
Cheyenne flag contains the Morning Star, symbolized by a square
set on a corner with lines emerging from it, set against a blue
the square on a corner, right away it creates a dynamic," Orenski
striking design is distinctive and easily recognizable.
you belong, you know the symbolism," Orenski said.
Star was one name for Dull Knife, the Northern Cheyenne chief who
led his people on a heart-breaking journey back from their forced
placement in Oklahoma to their ancestral lands in Montana.
Blackfeet Nation's flag contains a map of its reservation.
theory is, they're saying this is all the land we've got left and
we're telling you, 'This is ours,' " Healy said.
element on the Crow Tribe's sky-blue flag represents sacred aspects
of the traditional Crow way of life. Those images include a tepee,
war bonnets, peace pipe, medicine bundle and sweat lodge.
about us is on that flag," said George Reed, the tribe's secretary
of cultural education.
sun and its 12 rays represent the Crow's 13 tribal clans, with the
sun itself representing the Greasy Mouth clan, Reed said. The Wolf,
Pryor and Big Horn mountains are also depicted on the flag.
red flag of the Flathead Nation also includes a tepee in the center.
The flag is presented whenever the tribe's color guard appears at
events, including parades, pow-wows and some funeral processions.
flag of the Chippewa Cree of the Rocky Boy's Reservation bears the
tribal seal, with images of a tepee, eagle, buffalo head, bear paw
tracks, a braid of sweetgrass, eagle feathers and peace pipes. The
sun's rays on the flag represent the 15 sacred grass dance chiefs
active in preserving the culture of the Chippewa Cree, while the
writing under the sun represents good health and good fortune for
Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, who share the Fort Belknap Reservation,
symbolize their relationship by a buffalo skull divided into two
colors. Although divided, it remains one figure. A jagged line across
the top of the skull represents the Milk River. Snake Butte, a well-known
landmark, appears in the background.
buffalo robe stretched between two chiefs on the Fort Peck tribal
flag symbolizes the bond of friendship and understanding between
the Assiniboine and the Sioux tribes on the reservation, said Vice
Chairman Ray K. Eder.
have been known to shift colors and even designs over time. Healy
has seen some flags shift from light blue to purple or midnight
blue depending on the color palette of the flag manufacturer. Flags
can also change with the election of new tribal leaders.
and Orenski's book describes the buffalo skull on the Fort Belknap
Reservation flag as brown and white, while a recent photograph shows
the skull in black and white. The authors depict the Northern Cheyenne
flag as a deep blue and white, but a flag at the tribal offices
is a paler blue and yellow.
many tribal flags are filled with sacred meaning, some seem to suffer
from design by committee, Healy said. Members of the Wampanoag in
New England fought for 15 years over their flag's design before
settling on a design this year.
they fight over it for 15 years, it's really important to them,"
of the North American Vexillological Association tend to be equally
has collected about 500 full-size national flags and 85 tribal flags.
He recently loaned eight of the tribal flags for a film being made
for the opening of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum
of the American Indian in the fall of 2004.
pet peeve among vexillologists is the use of lettering on flags.
flag is a symbol, Healy said. It should stand for what it is without
the need for words. Words are hard to read on a waving flag, and,
as is the case with the Montana flag, the lettering can appear backward
on the flag's flip side.
most memorable designs tend to be startlingly simple, Healy said.
Healy is still collecting Native American flags from tribes in the
United States, he has branched out to gather flags from Canadian
tribes and indigenous Latin American peoples. In his spare time,
he also delves into the relationships between flags.
once traced the influence of the Dutch flag - the first tricolor
flag associated with a sovereign, democratic-style government -
to a chain of more than 120 flags, including the state flag of New
Jersey and about one-third of the national flags in Africa. He linked
all of those flags back to the Dutch flag's red, white and blue
Flags of the Native Peoples of the United States
Flags of Native Americans
To find out more
"Native American Flags," written by Donald T. Healy and
Peter J. Orenski and containing 192 color illustrations, is available
from the University of Oklahoma Press for $29.95.