I used to be one of those people who hated seeing the American flag at powwows on reservations.

Then I read a scholarly report about the American flag imagery throughout Native art and cultures for the Plains tribes. It helped me understand the meaning from Native peoples perspective throughout history.

The first encounters, tribes saw it as having a mysterious power to it (Wakan), which they associated with many of the new things Europeans brought with them as gifts to tribes.  Later, as battles for land began to happen, Native people would adorn their clothing as a sign they didn’t want trouble with Americans. They also would sell tourist items for additional income and the American flag image would help sell the items. And to mask the traditional celebrations, Plains tribes would have their ceremonies and pretend they were 4th of July parties during the early-reservation era (Native religions were outlaws until 1978).

And even today, Native people join the American military, despite the history of it attacking tribes, as a way to follow the traditions of gaining honor through military accomplishments. Native people have the highest military enrollment in relation to the population of any ethnic group in the US.

So when I see the American flag now at powwows and other events on reservations, I realize there’s a long history and meaning behind its use in Native cultures.

Fluidity of Meaning: Flag Imagery in Plains Indian Art

Fluidity of Meaning: Flag Imagery in Plains Indian Art
Author(s): Douglas A. Schmittou and Michael H. Logan
Source: American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 559-604
Published by: University of Nebraska Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4128503

An obvious, yet perplexing, question emerges from the historical context within which flag imagery developed: Why would oppressed peoples adopt the preeminent symbol of their oppressors and employ it as a design element in their decorative arts? Previous investigators have been no less struck by this dilemma. Herbst and Kopp, for example, state that “It has always seemed curious and contradictory that Native Americans who fought so valiantly and tenaciously against the encroachment of the United States should use the symbol of that government to decorate their clothing and belongings.” Pohrt remarks similarly that “It seems somewhat incongruous that the Sioux, who resisted white domination so long and so well, should be the leaders in the use of patriotic symbols in their art.

Fluidity of Meaning: Flag Imagery in Plains Indian Art


AFTER the American Indian sun dance ceremony was prohibited by the federal government in the 1880’s, some bands of Lakota Indians would gather in large groups during the summer to sing, celebrate and dance around a pole much like the one they had used in their traditional ritual of Thanksgiving. On top of it, they flew the American flag, which also decorated the clothing of warriors and children. It was, at least from the outside, a Fourth of July celebration, and the military was less likely to break up what appeared to be a patriotic fete.

The View From/Ledyard; The Flag Shows Up In American Indian Art

New York Times, TINA KELLEY

US Flags in Plains Beadwork, Google Arts & Culture


During the early reservation period virtually all traditional cultural practices were discouraged or banned outright. However, during the increasingly popular 4th of July celebrations, these rules were relaxed and Native Americans were allowed to once again practice some of their traditional dances, feasts, giveaways, battle recreations, etc.

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It may have been that the more “patriotic” the non-natives saw Native Americans being, i.e. wearing and displaying the flag, the less threatened they were by traditional practices being conducted out in the open. In this way the flag could act as a show of assimilation, while also acting as a distraction from Native Americans keeping traditional aspects of their culture alive. Flags were prominently featured on objects that were made specifically to be worn or given away during 4th of July celebrations.

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