The Zia Symbol
New Mexico is synonymous with the Zia Sun Symbol. It can be seen on anything from coffee mugs, to tee shirts, to shot glasses. It is the symbol of our State, it flies on our flag, and can be found in the center of every license plate of registered New Mexico vehicles. You see it in every tourist shop window and a good majority of New Mexicans have it tattooed somewhere on their body. As popular and prevalent as this symbol is, unfortunately the majority of companies and individuals sporting this symbol do not understand its origins and cultural significance.
The Zia Sun Symbol is the defining symbol of the Zia Pueblo, which is located 35 miles northwest of Albuquerque. This is where the symbol originated. The Zia is a sacred symbol that reflects their tribal philosophy and represents them as a people. While the State of New Mexico and countless other companies have appropriated the use of the Zia symbol, very few are aware that the symbol belongs only to the Zia Pueblo.
In the 1920’s the D.A.R or Daughters of the American Revolution issued a call for artwork to use as the New Mexico State Flag. During this time there were Anthropologists conducting studies at the Zia Pueblo. There were around 100 living members of the Pueblo. They did not have any voting rights or resources to defend their culture. The assumption was that they would die off entirely as a community and as a result their culture was pillaged. Sacred items were exploited and stolen, including the Zia Sun Symbol. It was submitted to the contest by the Anthropologists and hey, it won. Meanwhile, the Zia people had to stand by and watch the symbol that defined their entire existence be taken by the same entity that had already severed them from their land and was systematically destroying their culture.
As a Native New Mexican I have always held a lot of pride for my State and for the culture here, especially the Zia Symbol. Over the course of my life I have owned several pieces of Zia related items including jewelry. I have always had an understanding of its origins as well as an awareness of the wounded history regarding my indigenous ancestors that set the foundation for New Mexico as it exists today. The first piece of Zia jewelry I made was a personal piece. Once I posted a photo of it on my Instagram, I began getting floods of comments and requests for them. When I decided to start offering them for sale I thought it best to ask for permission.
In order to obtain permission for use one must submit a written explanation of their intention, along with photos of how the symbol will be used. After the request is submitted it is processed through the Secretary to the Governors. If approved, it is then submitted to all three Governors of the Pueblo. In order to be granted permission all the Governors must unanimously agree and give their blessing. For those requesting use for non-profit purposes they are ask for a donation of $200 to the Zia Pueblo Education & Scholarship Fund. For those requesting use for profit, they are ask for a donation of $500. Not everyone who submits requests will be granted approval. Requests must be in alignment with the culture of the Pueblo and not be used in a manner that would violate their code of ethics.
Overall this process took about 5 months. When I reached out I informed the Secretary that I had already made some pieces and that I would sell them in limited quantities while my request was processed. Had I not been granted permission, the agreement was that I would cease incorporating the symbol into my designs. To my surprise, after my request was submitted, I was told that it was the most unique use of the symbol they had ever seen, meaning I was the first person ever to request permission to use it in jewelry designs. This blew my mind. I have seen it used hundreds of times in jewelry designs. At this point I already owned several pieces of jewelry that incorporated the design by multiple different artists. My assumption was that my request would be one of hundreds. I never imagined it would be such an isolated inquiry. Considering that artists tend to be at the forefront of any complaints regarding originality and intellectual property rights, I found it ironic that this was the case.
One question I get all the time is what the symbol means (see description below). I am always surprised to hear that most New Mexicans don’t even have a full understanding of its iconography or cultural significance. I am also surprised that with its sacred nature it is used frequently in a variety of disrespectful fashions. As much as I believe that this is rooted in ignorance, I also believe that if you are going to use a symbol, any symbol, you must have a full understanding of its origins, history, and cultural significance. I also think it’s worth considering that utilizing a sacred symbol that originates from a culture that does not condone certain behaviors - such as consuming alcohol, it might be wise to reconsider using it as the label for alcoholic beverages, shot glasses, and beer mugs.
When I began the process of branding my company, one thing I had to do was to identify the culture of my business. What did I stand for? What was important to me? The words that came up for me over and over again were Integrity, Culture, and Community. As most of you know by now, I am a New Mexican mutt, or as I like say, a Yoté. While this has sometimes created confusion for me, mostly I feel it has gifted me with a variety of characteristics that serve me in a positive way. It has also created an internal conflict that I’ve had to consider in all of my choices. Knowing that one group of my ancestors suffered for the benefit of the others is an odd feeling. I cannot change the history of our State. I cannot change the wrong doings of those before me. I cannot change the past, but I can heal the future, and healing the future begins with addressing old wounds. It begins with having tough conversations, taking responsibility, and giving credit where credit is due. Simple actions can heal so much.
The culture in New Mexico is unlike any other. It too is a mix, the backbone of which we can attribute to our Puebloan Ancestors. So many aspects of Indigenous culture are in our day to day, yet also overlooked. How can something that defines us as a community have such little recognition by those who live by it? The Zia Symbol is a beautiful, exclusive, and powerful symbol. It holds a special place to us as a State and as a people, but it also has very specific origins. It has been on loan for a very long time now and deserves recognition. It is sacred and should be treated as such.
The Counter Narrative - Zia: Iconography & Appropriation