January 15, 2020
“Ahhh,” I said to my friend as we basked in the warmth of the burning piñon logs on the sidewalk of the plaza. There we were, huddled in the 7,000-foot chill of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was New Year’s Eve, a few minutes before midnight. We were there not to watch a ball drop, but a sun rise.
As the sweet aromatic smoke washed over us, I looked around at the crowds and the lights. Nearby, the Kiwanis Club doled out free hot chocolate and bizcochitos (New Mexico’s state cookie) to happy holiday makers. Who knew, that Santa Fe was such a groovy place to be on New Year’s Eve? The third oldest European-founded city in the USA was at its character-filled best (only St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia are older).
And here came the sun! Rising above La Fonda Hotel to meet at big lit-up 2020.
But is this okay, I wondered? After all, this wasn’t a sun at all, but a symbol—a sacred symbol of the Zia people.
The Zia are believed to have settled at the base of the nearby Nacimiento Mountains, where the Jemez River peters out, in the 1200s. They were thriving in the mid-1500s when Spaniards encountered them and proceeded to subjugate them and outlaw their religious ceremonies. The Zia successfully rose up against the Spanish in 1680, only to be crushed and massacred nine years later. When two ethnologists from the Smithsonian arrived at Zia Pueblo in 1890, they counted less than 100 people. This husband and wife team proceeded to collect as many artifacts as they could from the believed-to-be-dying pueblo.
Around this time, a sacred clay pot of the tribe’s Fire Society went missing from its kiva. It showed up later in an artist’s home in Santa Fe, and was transferred to a museum (it has since been returned to Zia Pueblo). This pot bears the symbol of a round sun with stylized eyes and a mouth, and groups of three rays emanating in four directions.
Fast forward to 1923. The Daughters of the American Revolution were holding a contest to design New Mexico’s State flag, and physician Harry Mera recalled seeing the symbol on the Zia pot. He and his wife Reba worked up a design. They omitted the eyes and mouth, and increased the number of rays in each direction from three to four. This won them the 25 dollar prize, and the Zia symbol went onto the flag. No one asked the Zia for permission of course; at the time the Zia weren’t allowed to vote and weren’t considered citizens.
Thus the sacred symbol went into the public domain without the Zia being able to do anything about it. It also went onto license plates, coffee cups, the state quarter, football helmets, et cetera. Schoolchildren were forced to stand before the symbol each morning and say, “I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico and the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures.”
Perfect friendship? I asked myself, watching the sun symbol rise, shaking off the chill. For reasons we don’t need to get into, the word ‘perfect’ has taken on a sinister aspect for me.
And this symbol was a sacred symbol—a sacred, stolen symbol.
But what does it mean? Or what did it mean, to the Zia, before it became common property?
Perhaps it represents four compass directions, or four times of day, or four seasons, or four stages of life, as some propaganda would have you believe. This preoccupation with the number four seems to detract from the importance of the sun-circle itself, a geometric figure that neither begins nor ends…one that had eyes and a mouth in the original version. The original symbol’s human features seem significant, being that it came from a culture rich in kachinas, or powerful spirit-personifications of things we see in the real world. If given veneration and respect, kachinas can use their power for human good.
“Respect,” I whispered, as the symbol continued to rise and the crowd counted down the seconds to the new year.
By the time the Zia people mustered the legal resources to challenge their symbol’s misappropriation, it was firmly ensconced in the public domain and there was nothing they could do other than request to be asked for permission for its use, and request that it be used with respect. Wear it proudly on a tee shirt, for example, but please don’t engrave it on the bottom of an ashtray or emblazon it on the side of a porta-potty.
The clock struck midnight. Fireworks exploded off the roof of La Fonda Hotel. The crowd roared at the risen sun.
“Respect,” I whispered.
Happy New Year. Let this one be one of kindness: kindness and respect.