Montana flag uses ‘seal-on-a-bedsheet formula’

House committee green lights flag study

By: - March 24, 2021 5:08 pm

Montana’s state flag can only be read when viewed in one direction. An interim committee may study the flag design. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Montana is a diverse and majestic state, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that picture from the state flag, said Rep. Moffie Funk, a Helena Democrat.

Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, wants Montana to study its flag for a possible update. (Provided by the Montana Legislature)

The design — a “so-called seal-on-a-bedsheet formula,” according to an art history professor — is similar to that of 15 other states with coats of arms or seals on a blue background, Funk said. Even some of Montana’s neighbors, like Idaho, have flags that resemble Montana’s.

“We want something that really represents how magnificent and amazing and extraordinary our state is because we know we are unlike any others,” Funk said.

Monday, members of the House State Administration Committee voted 15-4 that it’s time to conduct an interim study of the current state flag. House Joint Resolution 24 notes Montana’s flag was deemed the third worst design in all the U.S. and Canada by the North American Vexillological Association in 2001.

Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, was among those who opposed the study, and he was not ambivalent about sticking with tradition. The resolution notes the flag was adopted in 1905, and the legislature added “MONTANA” in gold letters in 1981 and then required Helvetica font in 1985.

“My perception of, well, changing the flag is it’s not acceptable in my eyes,” Hill said. Perhaps he could see naming a specific size or hue, he said, but Montana is the Treasure State. “I think this flag represents our state very well. I could expand on my opinion a little bit more, but I’ll spare the committee.”

Hipolito Rafael Chacon, on the other hand, gave a brief workshop on the flag’s shortcomings — and the opportunities possible in a new design. Chacon is a professor of art history and criticism at the University of Montana and head of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

“State flags are iconic and should accurately represent the values of our citizens in a concise fashion,” Chacon said.

The current one? It’s formulaic, indistinguishable from many other state flags, and long overdue for a remake, he said. (He was the one who provided the “seal-on-a-bedsheet” description.)

Reps. Jessica Karjala and Kelly Kortum display the Montana flags on their Zoom backdrops as seen by viewers from one side when flown. (Provided by Karjala via Twitter)

Plus, he said, when the flag is flying, observers can only read the name of the state from one side. (Via Zoom, Democratic Reps. Jessica Karjala and Kelly Kortum quietly demonstrated: A backdrop of the flag behind Karjala, a Billings lawmaker, and Kortum, a Bozeman legislator, showed “ANATNOM” across the top of their blue screens.)

“A  new Montana state flag is an opportunity not just for rebranding but also for engaging our citizenry in a design process that more accurately reflects who we are and how we represent ourselves as a people,” Chacon said.

The problems now? Montana’s flag violates four out of five accepted principles of good design, he said: It’s not simple; the symbolism isn’t clear (Chacon agreed the seal is beautiful, but he said the image is too intricate for a flag); it isn’t limited to graphics but is cluttered with text; and it’s not distinctive but easily confused with 19 other flags.

“Montanans deserve a state flag that represents the majesty of this land and the integrity of all its people,” Chacon said.

Mark Manger, owner of a small business in Missoula, said it was time for standards. He said the flag suffers from neglect and generally “does a lackluster job of representing our people.” Plus, he said factories printing the flag use any shade of color they want, dull and depressing or even with a flash of neon pink.

“This is happening right now, and it’s really unacceptable for a state flag,” Manger said. “When a flag’s design is subject to whim, it’s vulnerable to changes motivated by political, social or commercial commentary. And that really weakens it as a unifying symbol for Montanans.”

Caroline Truscott, a member of the public who opposed the resolution, questioned the ranking by the North American Vexillological Association, and said the image represents Montana.

“Our state flag is meaningful because of its elements symbolizing the beauty of our state and its resources,” Truscott said. “I did not know there was a contest for the most beautiful flag in the world, but I frankly believe Montana has a very fine flag and (it) does not need fixing.”

She asked lawmakers to put their time and money elsewhere. “What’s next? Changing the state name or the state shape?”

Montana and U.S. flag pin with a version of the Treasure State flag that may be reviewed by an interim committee. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

In making the case, Funk said she wanted people to know she wasn’t trying to be flip or frivolous, and she understands the Montana Legislature is taking up serious issues this session. But she said she was fulfilling a promise in bringing the idea forward during her last session. She also said it was possible that at the end of a study and process that’s yet to be defined, the people of Montana would decide they liked the current flag after all.

But the resolution notes Montana has “countless natural resources, geologic wonders, diverse landscapes, and robust communities, including eight tribal nations, from which to garner ideas for a new state flag, and … Montanans pride themselves on their independent spirit, individuality, and innovation.”

As such, Funk argued Montana should be given the chance to showcase its majesty and individual qualities on a flag. (Sometimes, Funk said states that aren’t Montana try to call themselves Big Sky Country, “which makes me quite cross because we are Big Sky Country.”)

“We are so unique. Montana is not like any other state, and maybe we want to stand out a little bit more,” Funk said.

Rep. Linda Reksten, a Polson Republican, admitted she wasn’t sure about the idea when she first heard about it, but she had come around: “I think it would tie in with Gov. (Greg) Gianforte’s wanting to attract business to our state and kind of revamping, revitalizing that flag I think would really help.”

Plus, Rep. Geraldine Custer said it would at the very least give the public a chance to hear more about Montana. Montana used to be a mining state, she said, but the “oro y plata,” or gold and silver, aren’t bringing in the cash anymore, and people could learn those history lessons.

“A whole bunch of — ding! — things go on in people’s heads,” said Custer, R-Forsyth, of the possibilities attention on the flag would present.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, who chairs the committee, said the Montana flag is beautiful, and it does represent Big Sky Country to her. However, she has a degree in design, and she sees where the banner falls short.

“I’m not really sure that everybody has an appetite for this, but I think that it’s always good to review things,” said McKamey, R-Ulm.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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