The Power of Symbols

Speaking of signs and symbols, what could be more charged than the swastika? The ancient sign, whose origins are not entirely clear, stood for, among other things, good fortune, fertility, and fecundity; it was usurped in the early 20th century by Adolf Hitler, who transformed it into a symbol of a repressive and criminal regime. There is considerable debate whether the Nazi use of the sign forever altered its meaning. I even wrote a book about it.
The caption for the photo above (thanks to Jeff Roth) reads, “Indians ban Swastika,” Tucson, Arizona, February 27, 1940: “Four Indian tribes of Arizona–Navajos, Papagos, Apache, and Hopis–banned the use of the swastika from all design, whether basket weaving and blanket making.” It’s one of many instances where the venerable mark was expunged. Yet there is a town in North Ontario, Canada, called Swastika that defied the trend and protested the Nazis by retaining the name to this day (photo below).
Who can say a name is just a name, and a sign has no inherent meaning?

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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