The Fascinating Story Behind the Zia Symbol on the New Mexico Flag

The Fascinating Story Behind the Zia Sun Symbol on New Mexico's State Flag

With a red Zia sun sign against a bright yellow background, New Mexico’s state flag stands out among other flags with blue backgrounds and state seals. Here’s the fascinating meaning behind the sacred Zia sun symbol on the New Mexico flag.

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Zia sun symbol on the New Mexico state flag
The Zia sun symbol is prominently displayed on the New Mexico state flag.

Vexillology is the study of flags. So when the North American Vexillological Association determines that your flag is the best-designed of any US state, US territory, or Canadian province, you’ve definitely earned bragging rights.

Congratulations New Mexico!

Yes, that’s right. The bright yellow flag of New Mexico with its red Zia symbol is considered the best-designed flag north of the Mexican border. The evaluation is based on these five design principles:

  1. Keep it simple – a child should be able to draw the flag from memory.
  2. Meaningful symbolism – images, colors, and patterns should be chosen with intent
  3. Don’t overdo it – select no more than three, standard colors with good contrast
  4. No lettering or seals – a well-designed flag should avoid writing of any kind as well as the organization’s seal
  5. Be unique, but don’t stray too far from the pack – avoid mimicking other flags, but use similar design features to show the connection to other, related organizations

Sage Advice: Here’s where you can buy a New Mexico state flag.

But do you know the history and meaning of the Zia Symbol on the country’s best-designed flag?

Fun Fact:  The New Mexico flag is one of four state flags that doesn’t include the color blue. The other three are Alabama, California, and Maryland.

History of the New Mexico Flag

When New Mexico became the United States’ 47th state on January 6, 1912, it didn’t have a state flag. As a new decade dawned and New Mexico still didn’t have a flag, the Daughters of the American Revolution encouraged New Mexico to cross this last item off of their new state to do list. The quest to create a contemporary and unique flag for New Mexico was solved in a relatively modern way — by holding a contest.

Fun Fact:  During the first 14 years of statehood, New Mexico did not have an official flag. When the World’s Fair was held in San Diego in 1915, an unofficial New Mexico flag was displayed in an exhibit showcasing all state flags. New Mexico’s unofficial flag featured a plain blue background with the US flag in the upper, left corner, the words “New Mexico, and the number 47 because New Mexico was the nation’s 47th state.

Enter Dr. Harry P. Mera, a physician and anthropologist living in Santa Fe, the new state’s capital. After serving as a doctor during World War I, Dr. Mera left the US Army and became an anthropologist and first curator of the Laboratory of Anthropology. In this role, Dr. Mera was inspired by a sun-like design on a 19th-century clay pot in the museum.

As it turns out, the ceremonial vase on display was stolen from the Zia people by another anthropologist, James Stevenson, back in 1890. Working for the Smithsonian Institution, he built a rapport with the Zia people and was allowed to attend their sacred ceremonies.

When he tried to purchase pieces of pottery with the Zia sun symbol, the Zia people wouldn’t allow it. So Stevenson stole the clay piece and documented the theft in a book he later published. The pottery has been returned to the Zia people and is no longer in the Santa Fe museum.

Fun Fact:  While the New Mexico state flag features the Zia sun sign, the newest license plate design features this other symbol of the Land of Enchantment.

Related Article:  A Spiritual Quest in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Back to the flag contest…

Dr. Mera paired the Zia sun symbol with the bright red and yellow colors of the Spanish flag. His wife, Reba, sewed their contest entry into the winning flag, and the couple received a $25 prize, about $350 in today’s dollars.

Fun Fact:  Today the Laboratory of Anthropology is known as the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.

The Spanish flag features the same bright colors as the Zia sun symbol on the New Mexico flag
The Spanish flag features the same bright yellow and red colors as the New Mexico state flag.

The Meaning Behind the Zia Sun Symbol

A branch of the Pueblo community, the Zia are an indigenous tribe originally from the Four Corners region. In the 13th century, they migrated to a rocky ledge above the wide Jemez River Valley at the base of the Jemez and Nacimiento mountains in northern New Mexico.  

Fun Fact:  The movie All the Pretty Horses was filmed on Zia lands.

Both the sun and the number four are sacred to the Zia. The Zia sun sign represents:

  • the four cardinal directions (north, south, east and west),
  • each season of the year (spring, summer, autumn and winter),
  • the four periods of each day (morning, noon, evening and night), and
  • the four seasons of life (childhood, youth, middle years and old age).


These four elements are tied together by a circle of life that has no beginning and no end.

 Additionally, the Zia also believe that humans have four sacred obligations. They must develop:

  • a strong body,
  • a clear mind,
  • a pure spirit, and
  • a devotion to the welfare of their people.

If you’ve ever been a 4-H member, you might notice a parallel between these four sacred Zia obligations and the 4-H pledge where the four “Hs” are head, heart, hands, and health.

Like the cross to Christians, the Star of David to Jews, the Aum to Hindus, and other sacred symbols, the Zia is important to this Pueblo community. Therefore, the Zia request their sun symbol be used respectfully and with their consent.

The Zia sun symbol is incorporated into everything from the New Mexico license plate to highway signs.
The Zia sun symbol is incorporated into everything from the New Mexico license plate to highway signs.

While the Zia sun symbol is featured on the flag of New Mexico, incorporated into the design of the New Mexico State Capitol, and featured on the back of the New Mexico state quarter, the Zia do not want to see business brands using the symbol for commercial purposes, like placing the sun symbol used on a can of beer. Or a football helmet.

Fun Fact: Known as “the Roundhouse,” New Mexico’s state capitol is the only circular-shaped state capitol in the United States.

Related Article:  Here Comes the Sun – The Intriguing Meanings Behind Sun Flags

Frequently Asked Questions About the Zia Symbol

What does the Zia symbol mean?

The Zia symbol represents a sun with four groups of four sunrays representing the cardinal directions, seasons of the year, periods of the day, and phases of life.

What do the lines on the Zia symbol mean?

The lines on the Zia sun symbol represent the rays of the sun. The beautiful symbol pairs two components sacred to the Zia, the sun and the number four.

Where did the Zia symbol come from?

The Zia sun sign is a sacred symbol of the Zia, an indigenous tribe from what is now the Four Corners region of the United States.

Is the Zia symbol trademarked?

Although the Zia sun symbol was stolen and used without the consent of the Zia people, it cannot be trademarked because it has been part of the public domain for more than 40 years.

But in 2014, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution that recognizes the Zia Pueblo’s cultural property right to the sun symbol. And as more people become aware of the symbol’s sacred meaning, organizations are voluntarily halting their use of the symbol, from Eastern New Mexico University to the City of Madison, Wisconsin.

When was the Zia symbol created?

The Zia symbol dates back to the early 13th century.

How many companies use a Zia symbol in their logo?

Throughout the Land of Enchantment, you’ll find the Zia many places besides the bright yellow flag of New Mexico. It adorns t-shirts, hats, and shot glasses. And it’s a popular name and symbol for a variety of businesses.

But as more people understand the symbol’s history (and how it was stolen from the Zia), businesses are compensating the Zia people for the use of their beautiful sun symbol. For example, Southwest Airlines contributes to a scholarship fund for Zia children because New Mexico One features the sun symbol.

How do I request permission to use the Zia symbol?

The Zia Pueblo requests that anyone wishing to use the Zia ask for permission. And as long as the sun symbol isn’t being used in a disrespectful manner, they typically grant it with a request to contribute to their educational fund.

Did You Know the Fascinating Meaning of the Zia Sun Symbol?

How did you learn the Zia sun sign’s meaning? What are your thoughts about this beautiful symbol? Share your experiences in the comments section below.


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25 thoughts on “The Fascinating Story Behind the Zia Symbol on the New Mexico Flag”

  1. As a New Mexican I love our Zia sun flag. Wherever I go where they fly the 50 state flags ours always sticks out (ex. Mt. Rushmore). I love that it is both modern and ancient and symbolizes the natives here in America, not something dragged from the “old country.” I belong to a Masters Swim team and we carry our flag with us. Every meet we go to whether local or national a fellow New Mexicans and or lovers of NM will come chat with us.

    Thanks for your research on our flag. I was unaware of several facts.

    1. It is definitely a beautifully unique flag that stands out among the other 49! Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!

  2. ~Leslie Kathryn

    I have always been enchanted and drawn to the Zia Sun symbol…. I was born a Nomad. My mother grew up in Durango, CO, married my father ( a young military man) and on their way to Roswell, NM…. I was born “on the way”, in Espanola, NM!
    I am getting ready to get my 1st and only tattoo…. it is the Zia Sun symbol. I’ve wanted this for years… and it’s time. Your post is beautiful and informative…. thank you!

  3. Guglielmo Audisio

    Thank you very much for your encouragement. I would not have liked to create outrage at the religious meaning of the symbol. When I get the tattoo, I’ll send you a photo. Best wishes.

      1. Well I was born in Santa Fe moved to Texas when I was 2 and half years old I did not know the history of the NM flag I’m sad to say but I am in the DAR and am happy to hear this part of my history both for the state and for the DAR part.

      1. Hello. I’am italian. Sorry for the mistakes of my English. I was in New Mexico recently and enchanted by tha Zia Sun Symbol. I would like to make a tattoo of it on my shoulder.
        Do you think I could ?

        1. I don’t see why you couldn’t! Many folks love the beautiful meaning behind this sun symbol and get a sun sign tattoo! It’s too bad you don’t live closer to Kansas City here in the US, because my daughter is an AMAZING tattoo artist! 🙂

  4. Very interesting! I definitely did not know this. Like Sapna said, every flag has some unique story behind it. I should really pay more attention and learn about more flags!

  5. Well that’s interesting, I honestly love hearing random but useful tidbits of information like this. You never know when you’ll need it. I love the look of NM’s flag and honestly love the evaluation point ‘a child should be able to draw it from memory’, that is so very true.

  6. That’s a very interesting story! I always find it beautiful when there actually is a meaningful story behind a flag and how it excisted. In my opinion, the Zia symbol also is a beautiful symbol in general.

  7. This is such a detailed and well-thought out piece. I do agree that the New Mexico flag is so stunning and memorable, both in its simplicity and significance.

    I remember when I first visited the state for the Balloon Fiesta, I went to a souvenir shop to buy something. As I got my receipt, the cashier hands me a little piece of paper explaining the meaning behind the flag. I thought that was neat and goes to show how much the folks there love it!

    1. That’s a really cool story! I do think that the vast majority of New Mexicans love and respect the meaning behind the Zia sun symbol and don’t mean any disrespect to the Zia people.

  8. Very instructive post, I love it! I found out a lot about the Zia Sun symbol and about the study of flags. I had no idea that “All the Pretty Horses” was filmed on Zia lands.

  9. varshastravel360

    What a great history behind the flag of New Mexico. I like such stuff about history and culture. You have explained it very nicely as well. The fun facts add in to the article. I didn’t know circular roundhouse city.

  10. A very interesting story.I think every country or state’s flag has some unique story and reason behind its design. It’s good to know about New Maxicos flag. And Indeed it looks interesting with a blue sky as background 🙂

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