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Montana's flag breaks all the 'rules.' Is it time for a redesign?

Harry Kessler's 1895 flag design shows the state seal on a blue background. In 1898 the First Montana Volunteers added their inscription, "1st Montana Infty USA" and adopted the banner as their regimental colors
Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society
Harry Kessler's 1895 flag design shows the state seal on a blue background. In 1898 the First Montana Volunteers added their inscription, "1st Montana Infty USA" and adopted the banner as their regimental colors

A flag's primary purpose is to be recognized from a distance. That means few colors, no lettering and a clear distinction from other flags. Ideally, it should be simple enough for a child to draw it from memory. So, how did Montana end up with such a complicated flag? Learn more in this episode of The Big Why.

Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio, where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener powered reporting. We'll answer questions large or small about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is the Big Why.

Montana Public Radio reporter Edward O'Brien is in the studio with us today. Thanks for joining us, Ed.

Edward O'Brien: Austin, it is a treat to spend time with you again.

Austin Amestoy: Now, this week's question is a little unconventional, isn't it?

Edward O'Brien: Yeah, it really is. Full disclosure, this question came from in-house, specifically from our pal and host of MTPR's "The Write Question," Lauren Korn, who joins us now. Welcome aboard, Lauren.

Lauren Korn: Thanks, guys. I am so excited to be here for this episode.

Austin Amestoy: Yeah, it's good to have you, Lauren. Now, you sent us a message a while back and asked the Big Why team if we had any plans to produce a story on the Montana flag. How come?

Lauren Korn: Well, I have a lot of pride for this state. So, when I first moved away from Montana in my late teens, I brought a Montana flag with me. I hung it on the walls where I lived, and I even wore it as a dress. So the flag is very close to my heart. And I thought that this, The Big Why, might be a good opportunity to learn more about something that sort of blends into the background for many of us here in Montana.

Edward O'Brien: To dig into that I started by talking with someone else whose heart is very close to flags.

Ted Kaye: I have a large flag collection, and every flag in my collection not only represents a place that I've traveled to, but is actually from that place.

Edward O'Brien: Ted Kaye is secretary of the North American Vexillological Association, or NAVA.

Austin Amestoy: Oh, boy. "Vexillological?"

Ted Kaye: Well, first, vexillology is the study of flags. Comes from the word 'vexillum' for 'flag' in Latin and 'ology' for 'study of.'

Edward O'Brien: Kaye describes flags as, "the ultimate icon of human tribalism."

Ted Kaye: We all belong to tribes and we want to show our belongingness and flags have evolved to become the symbols of those groups that we belong to.

Edward O'Brien: And according to Kaye, a flag's primary purpose is to be recognized from a distance. According to Kaye that means few colors, no lettering, and they're clearly distinctive from other flags. New Mexico's flag, for example, features the Zia Pueblo sacred red sun symbol on a bright gold field. That's it. No lettering, very striking.

Ted Kaye: The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

Rules of vexillology

Design your own flag & tag us with the results @mtpublicradio on Instagram, Facebook & Twitter

Edward O'Brien: Okay, you two, lightning round time. Describe for me from memory Montana's flag.

Lauren Korn: Okay, so the flag has a dark blue background.

Austin Amestoy: Yeah. Montana is written across the top in a yellow or gold color in all caps.

Lauren Korn: And in the center of the flag is the state seal. There's a Montana landscape. There's also some farming and mining tools in the foreground, I think.

Austin Amestoy: And there's a ribbon at the bottom of the seal that reads "Oro Y Plata," which is Spanish for gold and silver.

Edward O'Brien: Excellent work you two, darn near nailed it. Surrounding those tools specifically are mountains, a rising sun and the Great Falls of the Missouri River.

Lauren Korn: There's a lot going on on our flag.

Austin Amestoy: So let's get down to it. What do flag experts think of Montana's flag?

Edward O'Brien: Don't blame the messenger … So back in 2001 NAVA asked its members and the public to rate the design qualities of U.S. and Canadian state, provincial and territorial flags. Of those 72 flags,

Ted Kaye: The Montana flag came in third from the last.

Lauren Korn: We were that bad?

Edward O'Brien: Yeah, well, it goes back to that distinctive design criteria. So according to Ted, Montana is one of 24 U.S. state flags with a seal on a blue background and all of them sink to the bottom of the ratings. In 1981, the Legislature passed a bill requiring our flag bear the word "Montana." So, fine in and of itself, but some believe that if a flag requires lettering to distinguish itself from others, its symbolism has already failed. Besides, they add that if you see our flag waving in the breeze from the opposite side ...

Ted Kaye: It says anatnoM.

A view of Montana's flag from the back side. It says ANATNOM.
A view of Montana's flag from the back side. It says ANATNOM.

Austin Amestoy: Well, with so much going on, how did our flag actually come to be?

Edward O'Brien: According to Eve Byron of the Montana Historical Society, that story began in 1895. That's when the commander of Montana's National Guard, Colonel Harry Kessler, commissioned creation of the flag design. That one had really neat gold fringe at the top and bottom.

Eve Byron: It was supposed to be a traveling trophy for the guard companies after their annual summer encampment.

Edward O'Brien: Three years later, the men of the First Montana Volunteers chose the banner with their inscription added above that seal as their regimental colors and carried it to the Philippines at the onset of the Spanish-American War.

Eve Byron: And then in 1905, which was 16 years after Montana became the 41st state in the Union, the Montana Legislature was searching for an official state flag.

Edward O'Brien: Montana's ninth Legislative Assembly selected Colonel Kessler's banner.

Austin Amestoy: And over a century later, Montana's flag still evokes passionate feelings. I covered the 2021 legislative session and recall a proposal requesting a study of the state flag.

Edward O'Brien: Right. That resolution came from former Democratic state Representative Moffie Funk.

Moffie Funk: I just want to assure everybody I'm not bringing it out of any disrespect or being flip or frivolous.

Austin Amestoy: Proponents said her resolution was an opportunity to simultaneously rebrand the state while engaging Montanans in the process to come up with a fresh design. And it had plenty of support.

Edward O'Brien: Well, it did, until it hit the House floor.

Caleb Hinkle: When I saw this resolution, I was insulted.

Austin Amestoy: That's Republican Representative Caleb Hinkle of Belgrade.

Caleb Hinkle: Not only as someone who was born and raised in the state, but as someone who proudly served in the First Battalion of the 163rd Combined Arms Battalion Regiment in the Montana Army National Guard.

Edward O'Brien: Hinkle viewed Funk's resolution to study the state flag as an attempt to erase history and a slap in the face to every Montana Army National Guard veteran from the past century.

Austin Amestoy: Then things got really spicy.

Welcome to The Big Why, a series driven by your curiosity about Montana. We'll answer your questions, large or small, about anything under the Big Sky. This is our inaugural episode and we're answering a question that has to do with this show's name: Why is Montana known as the "Big Sky state"?

The Big Why is sponsored in part by:

Edward O'Brien: Certainly did. Representative Hinkle offered an amendment to add images of firearms to the state flag, anything from muzzleloaders to semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. Now, this was just over a week after a mass shooting in Colorado. Hinkle said every lawmaker in that room had firearm owners and enthusiasts back home who deserved a flag representing their interests. Moffie Funk was unamused.

Moffie Funk: I don't know why he brought it. And perhaps, it was an attempt to humiliate me in front of people.

Edward O'Brien: Hinkle's amendment was overwhelmingly rejected. Funk's request to review Montana's flag design also failed on a 37-63 vote. This battle over the state flag started as something to unite. Funk's stated goal was a study to determine if the flag truly represents the state's, "diversity, magnificence and integrity." Instead, it simply spiraled into something that drove us apart.

Lauren Korn: This history is new to me. And I actually love that it means so many different things to so many people. And, you know guys, Josh Quick, a Missoula artist, recently asked his followers on social media if they thought the Montana flag was due for a redesign.

Austin Amestoy: Oh, interesting. I wonder if those results were as divided as what we saw in the Legislature.

Edward O'Brien: Well, this is what Josh told me.

Josh Quick: It was a half and half split for the most part.

Edward O'Brien: Josh is a visual artist who authored a series of books called "Quick Facts," featuring unique facts about Montana, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. As part of his research, he started thinking about the flag, as in all of its components.

Josh Quick: The Plains, the Rockies, the skyline, the different tools that are in the flag. Do these elements necessarily represent who we are now?

Edward O'Brien: Quick wonders if a redesign might better represent contemporary Montana.

Josh Quick: Something that's not represented on our flag is the Indigenous communities. The Native American peoples in our state make this state unique. Another huge part is the flora and fauna in our state.

Josh Quick
Edward O'Brien
Josh Quick

Edward O'Brien: Quick says he'd be fine if Montana's existing flag represented the state for another century. But he adds,

Josh Quick: I think sometimes when we hold on to history too tightly, we get stuck. I believe that visual design helps people consider new avenues for themselves. Even if the flag was streamlined in some way. Maybe that would lighten the load for all of us.

Austin Amestoy: Well, thanks for your reporting Ed, and good to have you with us today, Lauren.

Edward O'Brien: It was great to be here, Austin. Thank you.

Lauren Korn: Thanks for having me, guys.

Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. This show is all about answering your questions, big or small, so ask your question below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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