Racist symbol or historical reminder? The debate over the Mass. state seal.

Racist symbol or historical reminder? The debate over the Mass. state seal.

A special commission voted unanimously to recommend replacing the Massachusetts state seal and motto, a victory for Indigenous members and activists and a dramatic turning point in a 40-year fight. 

MASHPEE — For more than a century, the Massachusetts state seal has stood sentry at official proceedings, dutifully, if a bit dully, serving as the sole adornment on the state flag.

Some might struggle to recall the emblem, which includes a Native American figure standing below a broadsword brandished by an upraised arm, but activists and members of the state’s Indigenous population have long objected to the image, which one critic called the “last state flag of white supremacy.”

“We’ve always referred to it as a sword of Damocles,” said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). “These are generational fights.”

They’ve also taken on new urgency. In May, amid the ongoing national struggle over historical monuments and symbols, a special commission voted to recommend replacing the state’s seal and motto — and by extension the state flag — a dramatic turning point for a symbol whose roots stretch back to 1629 and the chartering of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

“It is a long time coming,” said Andrews-Maltais, a member of the Special Commission on the Official Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth, which was established last year by the Legislature. “We’d like to see it transformed.”

But the volunteer commission’s unanimous vote masks sharp divisions among its 19 members, some of whom worry the recommendation constitutes historical myopia.

“This is the flag that crushed the Confederacy, and now to say that it’s a racist symbol — I’m not buying it,” said retired Brigadier General Leonid Kondratiuk. “Seventeen-thousand Massachusetts soldiers died fighting under that flag.”

Meanwhile, John Peters Jr., executive director of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, says he quickly regretted his vote.

“I was kicking myself,” said Peters, who voted in part to honor his late father, who first sought to establish a commission some 40 years ago. “When I look at that flag, it’s like a true depiction of what happened to the Native people here,” he continued. Changing the seal “gives the Commonwealth an opportunity to forget about that history.”

Designed by illustrator Edmund Garrett in 1898, the current seal draws on the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which featured a Native American man, naked but for some shrubbery about his groin, saying, “Come over and help us.”

In Garrett’s rendering, the Native American figure is shown clothed and in front of a blue shield. He, too, holds a bow in one hand and a downward pointing arrow in the other, a sign of peace (or perhaps submission).

But that’s where the similarities end: Garrett’s seal includes a disembodied arm holding a broadsword above the Native man as if ready to strike — an element first introduced during the Revolutionary War — while below him unfurls the state motto, in Latin: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

Writing in New England Magazine, Garrett described how the sword depicted once belonged to Myles Standish, a 17th-century military commander for the Plymouth Colony known for his brutality toward the Indigenous population.

“It’s just a constant reminder,” said Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “The sword was not a friend to the Indigenous people.”

The Native figure in Garrett’s design is also a hodgepodge: His bodily proportions are based on a skeleton found in Winthrop, while the head is modeled on a photograph of a Chippewa chief from the Dakotas region whom Garrett described as “a fine specimen of an Indian.”

Onto this hybrid figure, the designer added a belt based on one said to have belonged to Metacom, the Wampanoag leader who fought colonists during King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict of the 1670s. Metacom, also known as “King Philip,” was beheaded after his death by colonists, who quartered his corpse.

They “hung his head on a pike for over 20 years at Plymouth,” said Weeden, who co-chairs the special commission on the seal. “Everything’s wrong with it.”

But commission member Kondratiuk, a heraldic expert who served as a military historian for the National Guard and US Army for more than four decades, said such objections are “a misreading of the heraldry.”

“That’s the arm of God protecting the Commonwealth,” he said, referring to the upraised sword. “That symbol has been used in European heraldry for hundreds of years.”

He added that the Native figure’s downward-facing arrow indicates “peaceful intent.”

“The Native American on there is an homage to the Native Americans,” Kondratiuk said, adding he “voted with the pack” to see what recommendations the commission would produce. As for the motto: “That’s an allusion to the monarch,” he continued. “The Founding Fathers would have been very familiar with that.”

But Native Americans have found the image offensive for years, which led Peters’s father, also named John Peters, to begin trying to change the seal and flag in the mid-1980s.

Working with former state representative Byron Rushing, the elder Peters, who preceded his son as executive director of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, submitted legislation each year to establish a special commission on the seal, and each year the measure would die in committee.

“There is this kind of conservatism about the flag and the seal,” said Rushing, who represented the 9th Suffolk District. “If you ask people what’s good about it, no one can tell you except that it’s what we have.”

Peters, known as Slow Turtle, continued working to change the seal until his death in 1997.

“The sword was really the issue,” said John Peters Jr., speaking outside his great-grandmother’s old home, which now houses the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum. “He would just say it wasn’t right.”

The younger Peters took up the cause when he became head of the Commission on Indian Affairs in 1999. Then, in 2018, activists began holding informational sessions around the state and urging communities to pass a resolution in support of the effort.

“We always go door to door,” said David Detmold, a carpenter who coordinates a supporting website from his home in Montague. “We do the best we can to educate people on the issue before it comes up to a vote.”

The effort gained momentum in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, when protesters around the country toppled Confederate statues and called for the removal of other emblems and imagery considered offensive. In November 2020, Mississippi voted to replace the state’s Confederate-themed flag with one bearing a magnolia, exerting more pressure on Massachusetts to examine its own seal and flag.

“When you look at the controversies that have occurred, they boiled down to finally Mississippi and Massachusetts,” said Detmold, who added scores of communities have adopted the resolution, including Cambridge and Belmont. “I would feel confident in calling it the last state flag of white supremacy still flying in America today.”

Approved by Governor Charlie Baker in January 2021, the volunteer commission got off to a slow start, meeting only twice during its first 46 weeks as it sought to develop suggestions for a revised seal and motto and make recommendations for an educational program that will be included in a report.

The commission was supposed to have completed its task by Oct. 1, 2021. It has since asked for several extensions, and though it now has through the end of the year, it recently requested a revised deadline of March 31, 2023.

“The extensions were more a result of waiting on all of the members to be named,” said Brian Boyles, executive director the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, who co-chairs the commission. “Given the weight of it, and what I think is a unique composition — an attempt to bring some equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous members — I’m not sure how much faster we could have gone.”

Now, following the commission vote in May, big questions remain, and there is little consensus among Native communities — to say nothing of the state’s broader population — about what the final outcome should be.

“It’s not the Native flag of Indigenous people,” said commission member Elizabeth Solomon, who serves as treasurer of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag. “It’s a flag of the Commonwealth, and what do we, as members of the Commonwealth, want to project?”

Should there even be a Native American figure on the seal? If so, should it be a recognizable historical figure? Or should the design involve natural elements such as pine cones, the state tree (American elm), or the state game bird (wild turkey)?

Commission member Micah Whitson, who helped design Mississippi’s new flag, said he hoped the commission would offer “well-researched, and well-discussed options” for the Legislature to consider.

It’s a tall order: The seal must strive to represent the Commonwealth’s 7 million residents, while also avoiding bland neutrality.

“A lot of the work is to find whether there’s something that is actively leaving people out or openly biased,” said Whitson, who’s looking for images “that are perhaps more gestural, or symbolic, than physical.”

“You’ll never find anything that represents everyone.”

BG

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