Despite pueblo objections, Zia symbol embedded in New Mexican culture
The Zia sun symbol is as New Mexican as green chile and hot air balloons. As part of our Curious New Mexico project, Jung Oh, a junior at the University of New Mexico, asked what the symbol and its red and yellow color scheme represent. Reporters Veronica Munoz, Meghan McQuerry, Mariah Rimmer and Diana Vargas looked into the cultural and legal ramifications of the symbol’s use on everything from coffee bags to beer bottles.
To most New Mexicans, the Zia symbol is a local icon, found on the state flag, New Mexico license plates, and even the state quarter. But to the people of the Zia Pueblo, it’s been the cause of a 90-year-long battle with what they consider to be an appropriation of their sacred symbol.
“Personally, I don’t feel like it’s anything about the money, although some people may argue otherwise. I just feel like this whole aspect has to do with respecting one’s culture,” said Cedric Hardy, a UNM student and member of the Zia Pueblo.
Zia Pueblo officials have claimed that New Mexico appropriated the symbol, putting it on the state flag in 1925 without asking for permission from the pueblo. In 1999, the pueblo asked the state for $74 million for the use of the symbol ($1 million for each year it was used without permission from 1925 to 1999). The money was never granted to them, but recently, the state did recognize that they used the symbol without the pueblo’s permission.
The symbol is considered sacred in the Zia Pueblo, as it represents the father of their people. The symbol is a circle that has four groups of four lines, extending from the top, bottom, left, and right sides of the circle.“[The symbol] is a big aspect as far as religion and culture, and it goes back to what I was saying earlier about building that foundation to better yourself and to just make something of yourself,” Hardy said.
The Zia symbol has four groups of four rays extending from the top, bottom, left, and right of a circle, with the four rays within each group representing the following:
The four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west)
The four seasons of the year (spring, summer, fall, winter)
The four periods of the day (morning, noon, evening, night)
And the four steps of life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age)
The circle in the middle of the rays ties the rays together to represent love and life.
Zia Pueblo officials have tried to trademark the symbol, but because it is on the New Mexico state flag, it cannot be trademarked, according to guidelines set by the Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act.
The symbol is now exclusively associated with New Mexico, as it is printed on the state flag, state license plate, and even the state quarter. The red and yellow colors of the New Mexico flag recall the colors of Spain’s flag.
Because other businesses can use the symbol, the pueblo has tried to limit the commercial use of it to preserve its meaning by asking businesses to ask for the pueblo’s blessing to use the symbol to make sure that business isn’t distorting the meaning. Recently the pueblo brought up that a band used the symbol on their album cover without the pueblo’s permission.
To prevent cases like these from happening often, the New Mexico Legislature in 2014 passed the Senate Memorial 1, which concluded that the memorial would tackle the issue of the problematic use of the Zia symbol.
The Legislative Council Service requested that the Department of Cultural Affairs make a report and answer two crucial questions that arise when dealing with the Zia Sun symbol: who has the right to use the Zia symbol, and what the restrictions are on how the symbol may be used.
In response to the first question, the report concluded that no one is prohibited from using the symbol as it does not belong to anyone. For the second question, there are restrictions for the use of the symbol. Under the Lanham Act, no one can register a trademark of a symbol as it appears on the NM state flag. However, it can be registered with modification to the version of the Zia symbol on the state flag. The outcome of this ruling has allowed businesses to continue to use the symbol without difficulty.
Zia symbol as commercial logo
New Mexico Piñon Coffee is one of the many businesses in New Mexico that have incorporated the Zia Sun symbol into their brand. Randall Teller, who has been with New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company for more than 16 years, said that he assumed that Jim Franco, the original owner, wanted the company to be “tightly associated” with New Mexico and therefore chose the Zia sun symbol as part of the company’s logo.
“He wanted our coffee, because it has the piñon, which is so New Mexican, to be almost the quintessential product of New Mexico,” Teller said.
Teller also said that he did know a little about the issues surrounding the use of the Zia, however he does not know if Franco ever asked permission from the tribe to use the symbol.
“We’re on our third owners now and the issue has never come up with either of the two owners,” Teller said.
The New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company logo is trademarked and Teller said that he did not believe the company ever ran into any issues when trying to register a trademark. Teller said he did not feel like the original meaning of the symbol had been downgraded because they used it for commercial purposes.
“It’s kept it pretty simple and pretty true to what it originally was and what’s on our flag and because we hold so true to the idea of New Mexico with our products and the coffee, I think it represents fairly to the original intent.”
Santa Fe Brewing Company is another local business that has used the Zia as part of their brand. Desert Element Design is the company that created a modified version of the red and yellow Zia for Santa Fe Brewing Company’s iconic beer cans and bottle caps.
“People in New Mexico really relate to the Zia symbol. It is something that creates an intrigue for people outside of the area, specifically for Santa Fe Brewing Company,” said Kristin Quintana, senior web developer for Desert Element Design.
Quintana said that Desert Element Design has never run into any copyright or legal issues with the symbol, and was not aware of the controversy surrounding its use.
“This is the first I’ve heard of that [the controversy] actually and it is interesting to me because I’m a local,” she said.
Zia symbol as body art
Despite the controversy surrounding the Zia symbol, people still see the Zia as something inspirational. Owen Schwav is one of the many New Mexicans who have the Zia Sun symbol tattooed on their body. Schwav said he knew the meaning behind the Zia before getting the tattoo and was also aware of the issues surrounding its use.
“There are definitely ways to pay the tribe. I think if you are using it to make a profit then you should [pay them].” Schwav said he got the tattoo of the Zia on his chest a few days after moving to Albuquerque.
“Since a lot of its meaning is about stages in life I thought it was fitting to get it as I entered this new period,” Schwav said, “Plus it’s on our flag and we all secretly love New Mexico here.”[/text_output][share title=”Share this post” facebook=”true” twitter=”true” google_plus=”true” linkedin=”true” pinterest=”true”][/vc_column][/vc_row]