New Mexico Tribe Wants Payment For Use Of Symbol

ZIA PUEBLO, N.M. - The red sun symbol on the New Mexico state flag is shorthand for the sunny skies, high-plains desert and American Indian heritage associated with the "Land of Enchantment."

It can be found anywhere a business or other group wants to make a visual statement about its New Mexico bloodline.

A quick look in the yellow pages finds it used to peddle the services of a landscaper, beauty college, security company, carpet layer, concrete contractor and an exterminator. Even Gov. Gary Johnson's campaign uses the symbol, inserting it into the last "o" in Johnson's name.

Yet to members of the Zia Pueblo tribe, which created the symbol many generations ago, an invading culture has stolen the sun symbol and with it, their heritage. They are seeking $74 million in compensation from the state.

The Zia symbol is a circle with lines resembling beams of light radiating from the four cardinal compass points. It has deep religious meaning for the 860 Zia Pueblo members. The pueblo is about 30 miles north of Albuquerque.

The symbol was born as a representation of the life-giving sun. "We associate it with a lot of natural power," tribal administrator Peter Pino said.

To the Zias, the sun is father and the Earth is mother. "Many people are taught to respect their parents," Pino said. "We respect the sun as we respect our own father, we respect the Earth as we respect our own mother."

New Mexico's yellow flag, with the red Zia sun symbol in the center, was adopted by the state in 1925. Once the symbol appeared on the state flag, others began using it.

The symbol was taken from a design on a ceremonial bowl that was part of a Santa Fe Indian art collection. The bowl mysteriously disappeared from the pueblo sometime around the turn of the century.

No one knows for sure, but it is likely a tribal member stole the bowl after being bribed by a collector, Pino said.

The impact of the symbol's theft on the tribe is similar to the feeling of having ancestral human remains robbed from grave sites, he said. "It's that same kind of feeling of taking without asking," Pino said. "It's a total disrespect."

The tribe, which doesn't use the symbol on pottery sold to the public, is beginning to use a different version of the symbol with fewer sun rays for ceremonial purposes. The 16-ray version used on the state flag remains a sore point.

"We don't want to stop the state from using it," Pino said. "But when something like this happens between tribes, that wound never heals until there is some kind of compensation."

Pino said the tribe is proposing a payment of $1 million for each year the symbol has been used. That would total about $74 million, he said.

`It is part of our campaign'

"The situation probably does need to be resolved," said Doug Turner, campaign manager for the Republican incumbent.

"Not once have we had any complaints about it," Turner said. "At this time we have the symbol on thousands of pieces of literature. The symbol has become a symbol of the state and it is part of our campaign."

Neither Johnson nor his Democratic opponent Martin Chavez would say whether $74 million would be appropriate compensation.

Chavez said he would be "more than happy" to sit down with Zia Pueblo leaders to discuss the issue. "That symbol to me, it's so deeply embedded in my psyche and the spirit of New Mexico," Chavez said. "It is the spirit of New Mexico."

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., designed to provide some permanent protection for the symbol, passed the Senate in September, spokeswoman Kristin Ludecke said.

The protection wouldn't prohibit businesses from using the symbol, but it would mean businesses could not copyright it.

The proposal requires the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to conduct a study and recommend a plan to add tribal insignia to the list of flags, coats of arms and other official symbols that are barred from being trademarked.

It also would make permanent a temporary one-year ban on trademarking of tribal insignia. The one-year ban ends Oct. 1, 1999, Ludecke said.

Case would be tough to win

Ludecke said Bingaman believes the dispute over whether the state owes the pueblo money for using the symbol should be settled in court.

Such a case would be tough to win, said Jay Dratler, a visiting law professor at the University of New Mexico.

"If they allowed the state to use it for a number of years, they might have lost their rights," he said.

"It's better to get some kind of agreement than to settle it in court," Pino said. "There's no way we can stop (the state from using) it. So we said let's get some recognition, some kind of compensation."

And Pino said the pueblo doesn't expect to find an overnight solution.

"We know that a lot of this stuff takes years," he said. "But we do it for the community. It doesn't matter if I'm here. There will be somebody to pursue that, however long it takes."