June 2021
Reclaiming Sacred Heritage
MIP’s Whirling Logs exhibit teaches the breadth and depth of an ancient symbol

If you’ve ever wondered how cultural appropriation could do any real harm, consider the biggest cultural hijacking of all time, which essentially deprived the entire world of one of the oldest, most revered and positive symbols in human history and turned it into a shunned object embodying hate, fear, violence and death.

Chilocco Indian Agricultural School basketball team, 1909

In human use for at least 12,000 years, it has acquired many names: gammadion, fylfot, croix cramponee and hakenkreuz in Europe, khas in Mongolia, wan in China, manji in Japan, nkontim in Ashanti, Chariot of Mithra in Iran. It appears on sacred structures and built into the walls of homes, in traditional ceremonies and archaeological digs the world over, commonly symbolizing the sun, harmony, good fortune and the orderly progression of life. In ancient Sanskrit its name drew from the word swasti (‘it is auspicious’).

But in the 1930s a failed artist and politician with delusions of grandeur took it, tilted it and put it on a  blood-colored ground as the flag for his new political party, defiling and giving an entirely new meaning to the swastika.

Newspaper clipping, 1943

To the Hopis it’s The Journey, to the Navajos Whirling Logs, in both cultures expressing the cardinal directions, the four winds and the movement of the world, along with other and deeper meanings. Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous People hopes to help us all relearn the meaning of this universally positive symbol of life, luck and balance, through an educational exhibit opening this month.

Contemporary Navajo sandpainting, MIP cultural archive

“When we build our sacred fires, we have four logs facing the cardinal directions. The indications of motion mean the earth is turning on its axis, and everything is the way it’s supposed to be, in balance,” says MIP Assistant Director Manuel Lucero IV. “The symbol’s being reclaimed.”

“We’re talking about this symbol because we have artifacts in our cultural resource material on display permanently that do carry this symbol, and we get the comments — ‘Why do you have that swastika on there, that’s evil!’ — and you gotta say, ‘Look, that basket was made 200 years before that guy was even born, and it doesn’t mean what he caused it to mean to the rest of the world.’”

The exhibit has been on the museum’s agenda for a couple of years. “Given that we do get those questions, and wind up explaining it over and over, we figured we’d make an entire exhibit about it and show many examples from Southwestern cultures and other Native American cultures across the continent, as well as a little bit of how it’s used on the rest of the planet and how prevalent it was in regular everyday American culture.”

Unusual square Tohono O'odham basket, MIP cultural archive

“We will also talk about the man with the little mustache, the Nazis and whatnot. We’ll have a small case on that, saying ‘yeah, that happened, we’re not denying that it did.’”

“We think it’s something that needs to be addressed, and we know it’s gonna stir a bit of controversy, but it’s something we should talk about.”

The Nazi appropriation had immediate effect for Native Americans, with Native soldiers front and center. “The US Army’s 45th Infantry Division wore it as a unit patch on their left shoulders.” The 45th was the ‘all-Indian division,’ comprised of Native men from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, “except for the officers, of course, because this is the United States and segregation was a thing.” Segregation also maintained suspicion among whites about Native loyalty.

“When we entered the war, a document was signed by native artists and soldiers renouncing the swastika as a symbol and saying they wouldn’t use it in their art anymore. This became part of the government propaganda, photographs were taken, and we have one of those original photographs.”

The Boy Scouts of America used the swastika extensively as a good-luck symbol in the years before WWI.

The men of the 45th adapted too. “They changed it to a Thunderbird after having a contest to see who could come up with the new unit patch. Today the 45th is a National Guard unit, and they still wear the Thunderbird patch.” For the exhibit the museum is partnering with the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma.

Among many examples of ordinary use of the symbol, “We have a pre-WW2 Navajo rug just covered in swastikas, or the whirling logs as they say, then we have another rug from 1940, where in place of the whirling logs there’s a Thunderbird.”

Cultural reclamation

Japanese temple roof

After 80 years in the shadows, the symbol is coming back for Native people. “You can see powwow dancers today with this symbol on their regalia.” Lucero added one to his own traditional regalia, in part to reference the veterans of the 45th. I ask whether that still seems daring.

“To us it’s about as daring as me wearing an American flag on my regalia. Just as a person of Hebrew descent would say ‘that’s a symbol of evil, the last thing my ancestors saw before they died at Auschwitz,’ the American flag would be a similar thing for Native people, the last thing my ancestors saw at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek or on the Trail of Tears. That didn’t keep me from joining the US Army and serving for eight years.”

Education, says Lucero, is key. “Education is telling what it was, not whitewashing it. We think it’s something that needs to be addressed, and we know it’s gonna stir a bit of controversy, but it’s something we should talk about.”

Whirling Logs opens June 5 at the Museum of Indigenous People, 147 N. Arizona St. in Prescott. Admission is $7 for adults. For more info visit MuseumOfIndigenousPeople.org or call 928-445-1230.

Steven Ayres is Editor of 5enses.

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