The swastika is a widely despised symbol that instills fear and terror. It is also a sacred, centuries-old symbol found in the Hindu and Buddhist religions and American Indian culture; the Navajo call it the rolling log.
But with the swastika’s ancient origins overshadowed by its prominent use in Nazi Germany, four browsers at the Aug. 13 Urban Flea Market in Salt Lake City were furious to see it prominently featured on what was purported to be a Navajo blanket.
Michael Sanders, who organizes the monthly event at 600 South between Main Street and West Temple, said he reacted immediately when he received complaints about Nazi paraphernalia being sold at the market.
“We don’t allow items like that to be sold,” Sanders said. “We went to look, and I know antiques and I knew exactly what it was when I saw it — a Native blanket with a rolling-log motif.”
Sanders said it wouldn’t have been right to ask the vendor to pull the product “because it would be like saying Native American culture was bad.”
But four vocal activists continued to angrily demand the blanket be removed.
“They started screaming ‘Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’ and cursing at the vendor; they made a big scene,” said Sanders, who was later harassed on social-media over the blanket. “Then the vendor decided to pull it.”
The vendor could not be reached for comment. Market co-organizer Kate Wheadon said the blanket was never displayed prominently, and that the vendor — who has sold at the market off and on for seven years — told her it actually belonged to another seller who was sharing booth space.
“I don’t think the vendor did this to cause controversy,” she said.
Though the rolling log symbol used to be as common an American Indian motif as “arrows and headdresses,” according to Tony Chavarria of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, N.M., its use by the Nazis means it will always be controversial.
Once the symbol was purloined by Nazis, there was an effort among some tribes to denounce any further use of the symbol. In 1940, American Indians representing several tribes signed a statement vowing to no longer use it in their artwork.
And the Nazi appropriation inspired some American Indians to join the war, said Chavarria, the museum’s curator of ethnology.
“So many people lost their lives fighting this symbol, including many Native people,” he said.
It doesn’t seem right, Chavarria said, that a symbol that belonged to so many cultures has become associated with a group “bent on domination and racial purity.”
The Nazi icon is an inverted version of the traditional American Indian symbol, which usually features the arms pointing counterclockwise. But the symbol — sometimes called a “whirling log,” or meant to represent whirlwinds, Chavarria said — has also historically been used in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and there the arms can point in either direction.
Joyce Begay-Foss, director of the Living Traditions Education Center at the Santa Fe museum, knows the design is disturbing to some. She said she’s even had to correct people who think the Navajo adopted it from Germany.
But for her, it still speaks its original intent, and looking at it makes her think of rolling logs, not a Nazi swastika.
“Unfortunately, it’s a hard thing to explain,” she said. “We have to educate people that that symbol can mean so many things to so many people.”
Urban Flea Market organizer Wheadon said she tried to explain the cultural history of the symbol to the upset patrons, noting that the symbol is “everywhere” in Thailand, for example.
But they weren’t appeased, she said, and one of the protesters took to his Facebook page, saying in several posts that Sanders is “racist” and “white passing” and that “he looks like a neocon.” One of the posts was hashtagged with #punchanazitoday.
Sanders said he perceived that as a violent threat, and he’s thought about hiring security for the next market in September.
“I’m a little afraid to be at the market next month,” he said. “I don’t want to be tagged on social media with ‘punch a Nazi.’ I’m a gay man — why would I promote Nazi hate?”
Anthony Guzman, executive director of the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City, understands why the symbol can provoke strong reactions.
The incident is “a good opportunity for education,” he said. “Society is an interesting place right now.”
For many, the use of the swastika by Nazi and white-supremacist groups outweighs any ancient historical context. If the blanket had been on display at a market in Germany, the vendor would have been arrested — it’s been illegal for anyone to show it since the end of World War II.
“When a Jew sees a swastika, the fact that it was the flag that flew over the murder of 12 million people, 6 million of them Jews, erases that history,” said Rabbi David Levinsky of Temple Har Shalom in Park City. “For those who were victims of the genocide in Eastern Europe, the swastika will only be a Nazi symbol. That’s why people react so strongly.”