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Complaint Sparks Debate Over Historic Use Of Swastika-Like Symbols In The West

This swastika-like symbol is on a University of Montana building.
Matt Frank / Mountain West News Bureau
This swastika-like symbol is on a University of Montana building.

Students and faculty leaders at the University of Montana are calling for the removal of swastika-like symbols from a historic building, sparking a debate over its use across the West. 

Called aristikas, they are mirror images of the ones coopted for the Nazi flag in 1920. They were etched into many buildings or structures in the region, including a post office in Reno and a granite fountain in Provo, Utah, during a revivalist wave of architectural design more than a century ago. 

“Architects were fascinated with symbols from antiquity,” says Pete Brown, architecture specialist at the Montana Historical Society. “This swastika, or aristika, is a Sanskrit symbol and goes along with that fascination.”

But now both faculty and student body senates at the University of Montana have passed resolutions urging officials to remove the symbols after Brendan Hughes, a visiting Montana State University nursing graduate student, filed a complaint about the symbols’ relationship to the Nazi regime. 

“To look up and see a swastika in the United States, it’s stunning,” Hughestold the student newspaper the Montana Kaimin

But Ruth Vanita, co-director of South and Southeast Asia Studies at the University of Montana, argues the symbols should stay.

“The swastika is an ancient and sacred symbol in many cultures,” she wrote in a statement. “It represents the cycle or wheel of life and rebirth of all things.”

The symbol is at least 7,000 years old and has been used by four major religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. It’s also found on vases from ancient Greece, is known as a “whirling log” among the Navajo, and is ubiquitous in India.

In pre-war America, the word “swastika” represented good fortune in pre-War America. There was the Swastika Mining Company in Montana and, until very recently, a suburb in Denver known as “Swastika Acres.” The symbol was even used on Arizona highway signs until the beginning of World War II. 

Vanita argues the Nazi misuse of the symbol should not invalidate its history or meaning and believes a explanatory plaque should be placed on the hall near the aristikas. 

“Such a plaque would serve the purpose of educating people about world history, campus history, Nazism, Eurocentrism, and how symbols can be misappropriated but still retain their earlier and continuous meanings. To educate is the mission of a university, not to erase,” she wrote. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
Nate Hegyi
Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.

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