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New Mexico Flag Hasn't Always Had a Zia Symbol; Earliest Version Boasted Quartz Crystals

By Rick Nathanson
Journal Staff Writer
    "The Sunshine State," best known as Florida's official nickname, described New Mexico long before Florida laid claim to it in 1970.
    The phrase appeared on our first-ever state flag in 1915, three years after New Mexico became a state. New Mexicans had no banner to rally around until politician and historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell designed one, and the New Mexico Legislature adopted it.
    That first flag is drastically different from the Zia design we know today. It was not golden yellow, but a pale turquoise with gold fringe along the bottom and a miniature U.S. flag in the upper left corner. Instead of 48 stars in the U.S. flag, there were 48 star-shaped pieces of native quartz crystals hand cut by New Mexico craftsmen.
    The number 47 in the upper right corner of the turquoise field signifies New Mexico's place as the 47th state. The words "New Mexico" run at an angle in the middle of the field. A replica of the state seal, also designed by Twitchell, is near the bottom right corner, with the words "The Sunshine State" beneath it.
    The badly faded Twitchell flag, as it has come to be known, is on display at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. "It's the only one in existence that I'm aware of," said Louise Stiver, the Palace's senior curator.
    But because the stars in the miniature U.S. flag emblem were cut crystal, "it makes me think it was the prototype or the original state flag," Stiver said. "It's so elaborate."
    Mrs. Beatrice Roach donated the flag to the museum in 1954.
    "We have no other information on Mrs. Roach or the flag," Stiver said, including whether there may be copies.
    In 1923, the New Mexico Daughters of the American Revolution decided the flag was too cluttered and lacked aesthetic appeal. A new state banner needed to be developed, according to state historian Estevan Rael-Galvez.
    "So the DAR put together a design competition with a $25 award— big money at the time. They got something like 200 submissions and put them on display at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts for the public to see and comment on."
    The DAR ultimately chose a flag designed by Santa Fe physician and archaeologist, Dr. Harry Percival Mera. The flag featured a red Zia sun symbol on a bright yellow field. The colors were a nod to the flag of Old Spain.
    The Zia symbol consists of a circle joining four groups of four sun rays. The north rays represent the four winds; the south rays, the four seasons; the east rays, the four stages of a person's life (childhood, youth, adulthood and old age); and the west rays, the times of the day (morning, noon, evening and night).
    The generally accepted story is that Mera copied the Zia symbol, which contained a face in the center circle, from a piece of Zia Pueblo pottery. Rael-Galvez said members of the Zia Pueblo raised objections about the use of the sun symbol, and those objections continue today.
    The DAR retained the symbol but opted for simplicity and removed the face.
    State Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, has introduced several bills asking the state to pay Zia Pueblo for unauthorized use of the sun symbol, and to negotiate a licensing agreement for its continued use. His latest bill, in 1999, asked for $74 million.
    "I'm not aware of any of the bills getting to the floor of either the House or the Senate for a vote," said Dave Mielke, general counsel for Zia Pueblo.
    Gov. Bill Richardson signed an executive order in 2003 to create the Zia Sun Symbol Task Force. The order "acknowledged the pueblo's claim that the symbol originated with them, and that it has religious and cultural significance to the tribe," said Mielke, of the task force.
    The New Mexico flag was voted the best designed among 72 states, provinces and territories in the United States and Canada in a 2001 online poll conducted by the North American Vexillological Association— a scholarly organization of people who study flags.