Senate moves to overhaul state flag, seal

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, speaks at a rally in support of the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda on July 16. SUBMITTED PHOTO/OFFICE OF STATE SEN. JO COMERFORD

Staff Writer
Published: 7/29/2020 6:55:01 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The state flag is one step closer to a symbolic overhaul after state senators unanimously approved legislation Tuesday that would create a panel charged with redesigning Massachusetts’ seal and motto, emblems that Native American groups say represent white supremacy.

The resolve, which passed the Senate 39-0 and was co-sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, now awaits action in the House. State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, has introduced a version of the measure. The legislation passed by the Senate would create a 15-member commission tasked with investigating the features of the current seal and motto and recommending a new or revised seal and motto.

“Native people have been asking the state to listen to us for decades, literally, about changing the state seal,” said Amalia FourHawks, of Florence, and a Native American activist. “I’m very happy that they are now listening.”

FourHawks said the seal glorifies the history of racial violence perpetrated by the colonists on Native Americans. The state seal, which was officially adopted in 1898, prominently features a Native American figure placed below an arm holding a sword, with the Latin motto “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” or, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty” draped underneath.

The Colonial-era broadsword featured on the seal is believed to be that of Myles Standish, a Plymouth Colony military commander known in part for killing Native Americans, according to Comerford’s office.

“This is offensive, this is racist and it’s old-fashioned,” FourHawks said. “It speaks of a day and age that doesn’t exist anymore.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Comerford said the original version of the legislation was filed in 1985 by former state Rep. Byron Rushing and has been introduced in every session of the Legislature since. She said that the measure had passed through the House only once before it passed the Senate on Tuesday.

“It’s an enormous victory, it’s a Native American rights victory, it’s a people-powered victory,” Comerford said. “It’s a step forward for racial justice.”

Comerford stressed that the measure’s passage was powered by Indigenous voices, saying that “we have Native American leaders to thank.” But western Massachusetts played a part in moving this forward, Comerford said, as 21 of the 24 cities and towns in her district have passed a resolution in support of the legislation. She also said The New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett has worked tirelessly on the issue over the years.

“Yesterday I said in the chamber that it felt like western Mass. voices were echoing,” Comerford said.

When asked why there’s been added interested in this measure recently, Comerford said that 2020 marks 400 years since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, adding that “this is a racial justice inflection moment, across the nation” following recent protests against police brutality and racism.

“I think people of conscience want to have a full reckoning of what it meant for Europeans to land on our shores — what it meant to the Indigenous nations, the tribal nations living here,” she said.

The commission created by the measure would include the executive director of the state Commission on Indian Affairs and five members chosen by that existing commission who are descendants of tribes with historic presences in Massachusetts; four people with relevant expertise appointed by the governor, House and Senate chairs on the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and the executive directors of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

After the Senate voted in favor of the measure, a statewide coalition of racial justice organizations, including the North American Indian Center of Boston, MA Indigenous Legislative Agenda and Massachusetts Peace Action, released a statement applauding its passage. But this victory was seen by the coalition as a “first step” toward its goal of passing other legislative priorities, including banning the use of Native American sports mascots in public schools.

Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the Board of Directors for the North American Indian Center of Boston and a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, said the coalition was focused on putting pressure on the House to approve the seal and motto measure, and on both chambers of the Legislature to implement their legislative agenda. Gov. Charlie Baker has said he is “open” to discussions about changing the state seal, according to State House News Service.

Comerford said the mascot bill, and another on Native American history, have yet to come to the floor, though she was able to get the mascot bill, which she sponsored, out of committee.

“This is not the only bill that we must pass to strengthen Indigenous rights in the commonwealth. But this was an important one — a major one,” Comerford said of the seal and motto measure. “Now, I think the work continues to be laid out for us.”

If created, the commission would have until Dec. 2 to submit a detailed report.

Michael Connors can be reached at
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