CAIRNS Column: Examining the flag of the Yankton Sioux Tribe

The flag of the Yankton Sioux Tribe

By Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies
For The Lakota Country Times

Each of the nine federally recognized tribes with reservation lands in South Dakota has a legal status described by the U. S. Supreme Court as a “domestic dependent nation.” As with other nations, each has its own flag. Because flags are usually designed to be symbolic, studying them carefully is a fascinating way to learn of their nations’ histories and cultures. The study of these and all other aspects of flags is called “vexillology.”

The North American Vexillological Association published a guide to good flag design by Ted Kaye, called Good Flag, Bad Flag: How to Design a Great Flag. It identifies five basic principles of good flag design. The first is to use a design “so simple that a child can draw it from memory.” The second principle is to use symbolism that is meaningful to whom it is for. The third is to use no more than three standard colors that contrast well. The fourth principle is to not use writing of any kind. And finally, good flags should not duplicate other flags, yet can use similar elements to show connections.

Over the course of the next few months we will examine the nine tribal flags of nations with reservation lands in South Dakota, and evaluate them with regard to the five principles of good flag design. For reach principle that a flag incorporates, it will earn one star. The better the design, the more stars earned. The maximum number of stars is five, one or each of the basic principles of good flag design.

The flag of the Yankton Sioux Tribe is seen on a banner. Photo from Yankton Sioux Tribe Land Buy Back Program

The first flag we will examine is the Yankton Sioux Tribe flag. Its background color is red and it is divided into two halves. On the left side is a large yellow form that can be read as both the letter “Y” and a stylized cannunpa (pipe) with the centerline of its bowl aligned to the top-left corner of the flag and its stem running diagonally off the bottom-left border of the flag.

On the right side of the flag are two horizontal yellow strips that are positioned so that the red background appears as a stylized “S.” The top horizontal bar of the “S” has the words, “Yankton Sioux Tribe,” the center horizontal bar has the words, “Land of the Friendly People of the Seven Council Fires,” and the bottom horizontal bar has the number “1858,” which is the year the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation was established.

A horizontal red wavy line bisects the lower yellow strip on the right half and cuts across the cannunpa or “Y” on the left side of the flag. This wavy line suggests a river, and indeed the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation borders the Missouri River for approximately 33 miles.

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So with regard to the first principle, simplicity, lets give the flag half a star. The “Y” and “S” are fairly simple, but all the words would be complicated for a child to draw.

The second principle is meaningful symbolism and the design easily earns a star. The “Y” and “S” reference Yankton Sioux; the red color symbolizes pipestone; the “Y” can also be a pipe; and the wavy line represents the Missouri River.

The design earns another star for having two basic colors. But it doesn’t get any star for the fourth principle since it includes writing.

Finally, the flag is certainly distinctive so let’s give it another star. Tallying up the results, the Yankton Sioux Tribe flag earns a decent 3.5 stars of a possible 5 stars. If the flag didn’t have any words or numbers it would be an excellent 4.5 star design.

(The Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS), based in Martin, South Dakota, is an Indian-controlled nonprofit research and education center that is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of American Indian communities and issues important to them by developing quality educational resources and innovative projects that acknowledge and incorporate tribal perspectives, and by serving as a meeting ground for peoples and ideas that support those perspectives.)

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