×

Editorial: It’s the right time to rethink our outdated state seal


Monday, June 11, 2018

We’re not sure how many people actually notice, let alone study the state seal. At first glance, it looks like most such symbols, composed of archaic images and Latin inscriptions.

Our state seal is dominated by a depiction of a Native American, which seems appropriate for a state that took its name from a native Algonquin tribe that lived here before the Europeans. Native Americans played a huge role in helping those first English Puritans establish a toehold in the Bay State.

Every November, we commemorate those earliest years, albeit a perhaps romanticized version of that first Native American-European relationship, with our celebration of “the first Thanksgiving” of 1621 after Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe welcomed the Pilgrims and helped them survive their first winter and adapt to “new” England.

Of course, the interaction between Native Americans and the new immigrants grew darker in later years and devolved into warfare and domination. Today, from our modern perspective, it seems our state seal and flag — depicting a colonial broadsword hanging over the head of an American Indian — are outdated and convey the wrong message.

The seal shows a blue shield with an Algonquin native in gold holding a bow in his right hand and a downward arrow in his left, with a five-pointed silver star above his right arm, representing Massachusetts as one of the original 13 states. Over the native’s head is an arm grasping a broadsword, with the state motto in Latin written in gold on a blue ribbon streaming below the native. Dating to 1775, when the fledgling state was breaking ties with England, it translates as: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

The sword and inscription seem to be an artifact of Revolutionary times and meant to be seen as a sign of strength in defense of liberty against British monarchy rule. But today, seeing a sword hanging over the head of the Native American certainly can telegraph a different meaning of domination over the peoples our European forebears did fight, enslave and subjugate.

A bill to reconsider our state seal has for 34 years failed to win approval by the Legislature.

A proposed House resolution states that with the approaching 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, citizens have a chance to reflect on this history “and come to a new awareness of a better relationship” between descendants of European immigrants and those of Native Americans.

It cites some of our darker history: “forced internment of thousands of so-called ‘praying Indians’ on Deer Island, in Boston Harbor, where they died by the hundreds of exposure in 1675,” and the offering of bounty for the scalps of Native men, women and children in Massachusetts beginning in 1686. Native Americans were legally prohibited from even stepping foot in Boston until 2004, when the 1675 prohibition was repealed.

John Peters, executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs, told a legislative committee last spring, “I sincerely request that you consider our shared history and be cognizant of the genocidal accuracy of the symbolism that the seal in part portrays.”

Wompimeequin Wampatuck, chief of the tribal council of the Mattakeeset Tribe, told a House panel “we’d be more than honored” to have an Indian on the flag but without the overtones of subjugation.

We support a special commission to investigate and recommend changes to these official symbols, which many find offensive. Symbols matter, and this one seems outdated, reflective of a mind-set and world view from hundreds of years ago.

We don’t know if there’s a rule book for what to depict and commemorate on a state seal, and we can’t telegraph the state’s entire and complicated history in the images of a seal, but do we want to highlight a theme of subjugation of indigenous people?

Or can we strike a more hopeful tone, perhaps one drawn from the first Thanksgiving, from our earliest time of cooperation and alliance?