Chris Lang, a Las Cruces businessman, took the unusual step of meeting with Zia Pueblo leaders before using the tribe’s iconic symbol in his company’s products.
He got their permission — along with a potential partnership with the pueblo northwest of Albuquerque.
The Zia symbol has long been used without the pueblo’s permission, from the state flag to alien stickers, pueblo Gov. Anthony Delgarito said in an interview.
“Our ancestors didn’t know about patent laws and trademark laws years ago,” Delgarito said. “Although the symbol is used on a regular basis for different things, we consider it sacred.”
Lang, who relocated to his wife’s hometown of Las Cruces and started Organ Mountain Outfitters in 2016, said among his most requested items are T-shirts, caps and other apparel sporting the Zia symbol.
But growing up on Cherokee land in Oklahoma, Lang said he was sensitive about showing respect to Native American culture and feared the Zia symbol was being exploited. When the pueblo did not respond to his phone calls and emails seeking permission, Lang said he “made the decision a few months ago to visit with the pueblo face-to-face.”
“I was asked to join the Zia Council for their morning meeting the next day and presented our products and talked about who we are and what we are about,” he said.
Lang said the council asked him not to alter the image or change it in any way because of how sacred the symbol is.
Delgarito said the tribal council recently voted to register the sun-like image as a trademark in the hopes of gaining control of its use. “The symbol means so much to us, too much for me to explain and for that matter, holds many secrets that are for our people only,” he said.
The center circle, for example, is a key component, he said.
“The center is where we are born and where we return to after this life,” he said. “So when I see the symbol added to with art covering (it) up or inside the circle, it frustrates me.”
In 2000, the pueblo asked the New Mexico Legislature to pay it $74 million for appropriation of the symbol on the state’s flag and license plates, among other uses. The Legislature didn’t award the Zia any money, though a 2012 memorial later acknowledged the state had appropriated the image without permission, including on the state’s flag beginning in 1925.
Delgarito said the council was pleased that Lang sought its permission.
“We are pleased with the outcome and look forward to working with Chris next year,” Delgarito said.
Lang said after the meeting, he struck up a partnership with the pueblo under which his company will donate 10 percent of gross sales to the pueblo and provide a screen-printing apprenticeship for pueblo youths. Also, he said he would help the pueblo build an e-commerce site for promotional purposes.
“We are happy we can help our customers with New Mexico pride, but for the long-term we would love to be the only official outlet for the Zia symbol,” he said.