Sign of the times: Rethinking the Massachusetts state seal in 2019

  • The Massachusetts state seal at the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Massachusetts state seal at the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Kurczynski, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, stands in front of Goodell Hall where the state seal hangs above the front door. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Massachusetts state seal hanging above Goodell Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Massachusetts state seal hanging above Goodell Hall on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Kurczynski, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, stands in front of Goodell Hall where the state seal hangs above the front door. Above the Massachusetts state seal adorns a flag at the Hampshire County Courthouse. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Massachusetts state seal hanging above Goodell Hall on the University of Massachusetts campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kevin Sweeney, an emeritus professor of American Studies and History at Amherst College, talks about the Massachusetts state seal at his home in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2019 3:41:55 PM

For the past 239 years, Massachusetts residents have lived in a state with a seal and a flag depicting a Native American man, a sword and the state motto written in Latin.

Though legislation to revise the state seal was filed in every state legislative session beginning in 1984 by former Rep. Byron Rushing, the current seal has remained intact, despite perception by critics that it is a harmful representation of American Indians. The seal, many critics say, is a symbol of oppression and subjugation — and not in tune with contemporary views.

Now, a movement is underway to change the seal  with new legislation sponsored in the House by state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and co-sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. Meanwhile, Northampton and Amherst’s councils have joined other communities in western Massachusetts in support of altering a seal whose motto is “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” 

Elizabeth James-Perry, an artist in the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, said she sees hostility toward Native Americans as the central theme of the current state seal — and the momentum to change it as a good thing. 

“As an indigenous person and visual artist, the seal is deeply offensive in its imagery and has been for countless generations of tribal members,” James-Perry, who runs an artist’s studio on Martha’s Vineyard, said in an interview with the Gazette.

While she understands the image of the Algonquian man is supposed to represent peace, the seal as a whole doesn’t portray equality, she says, in that certain parts of the seal are ascendant over other parts, such as an arm holding a sword above the figure.

“I liken it to a flag depicting an African-American with an arm holding a whip above it — horrific imagery capturing horrific intent that is not condoned in free democratic America,” James-Perry said.

Amalia FourHawks of Northampton, a Native American activist, said the current state seal and flag are little more than a battle symbol of violent colonization, which led to the loss of lives and land for Native Americans.

The story of the seal

Karen Kurczynski, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the seal was originally meant to suggest peace with the colonial-era symbol of a Native American whose arrow is pointing down. However, more than two centuries later, that symbolism is long outdated and, in the 21st century, conveys nearly the opposite, she said.

“Seen from today’s point of view, the arrow pointing down could suggest submission and subjection to colonial domination as much as peace, given a clearer look at what happened in American history,” Kurczynski said.

She added that it’s also disrespectful to use a Native American figure — one related to Romantic images rather than representative of real, local tribes — as a seal symbol for a colony that, as the years went by, decimated the Native American population.

Still, knowing the seal’s history is crucial to understanding the context of how it was created over a span of more than 150 years.

Kevin Sweeney, an emeritus professor of American studies and history at Amherst College, said that what is on the current flag should be seen as the fourth Massachusetts seal.

The original seal was designed in 1629 for the trading company known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with a Native American man holding a bow and saying, “Come over and help us.” Sweeney said this image was clearly an effort to justify the company’s mission of colonizing the New World — and financially benefiting off of it.

In 1692, the seal was changed to reflect the colony days of Massachusetts under the British Empire, using a royal coat of arms of England. This was the second version.

The third seal was created in 1775 with its centerpiece of an upright soldier holding a sword and a copy of the Magna Carta in Latin. Sweeney said this seal can be viewed as one in which the state is rebelling against the English.

Sweeney said because this seal was not yet seen as pro-American, the idea of putting the Native American back into the seal would show to the citizens of Massachusetts that they were no longer subjects of the British crown.

“The native person is the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Sweeney said. “By 1780, they were saying, ‘We’re not English anymore.’”

Sweeney said what is now the state seal should be viewed as a “hodgepodge” of the first seal, and the elements have remained mostly unchanged since that time.

“The Native American was used as a representation of America,” Sweeney said. “It’s obviously a cultural appropriation, but it’s not a mascot.”

Jim Wald, a history professor at Hampshire College, noted that many people’s discomfort with the seal comes down to the juxtaposition of the various images.

“Clearly, the seal represents a problematic way of looking at the world that does not reflect contemporary values,” Wald said.

Regardless of the historical origins, the imagery has been troubling, both today and in the past.

“The real issue is the depiction of the Native American and the appropriation of this cultural and historical heritage — all the more troubling in light of the treatment of Native Americans by European colonists and their descendants,” Wald said.

Still, Wald observes that many people seem to focus on what he considers irrelevant, or less relevant, aspects of the seal and a misunderstanding of what the imagery represents.

The bent arm with the sword, for example, was not intended to be threatening to Native Americans, or threatening to anyone, for that matter. “It’s just a typical heraldic representation found on many coats of arms,” Wald said.

And while the state motto is about taking up arms – “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty” – it is an expression of freedom unrelated to how poorly the Native American population was treated.

“Talk of taking up arms to secure liberty may not be fashionable today, but historically, this has nothing do with Native Americans or genocide,” Wald said.

Sanitizing history?

Northampton resident Paul Cherulnik said he finds the idea of sanitizing history to be troubling and that the contemporary standard means blaming people from the past, without considering the context.

“The design came at a time when sensitivities were very different from what they are now,” Cherulnik said.

He worries that changing the seal is akin to removing historical statues and that today’s generation will lose vital insights from the past. Furthermore, Cherulnik said, at times the effort to make these changes can border on the absurd, pointing out that Amherst College changed its unofficial Lord Jeffs nickname to Mammoths — yet the college itself retains the Revolutionary War commander’s surname of Amherst. 

“It does verge on the comical that the college erased the first name and kept the last name,” Cherulnik said.

If the current legislation passes to establish a commission that could begin examining how to go about making changes to the seal, there will be input from Native American tribal leaders.

Kurczynski, the UMass professor, said she has advocated for the change because whatever peaceful intentions were behind the seal no longer exist. “I’m excited to see this going somewhere,” Kurczynski said.

Both FourHawks and James-Perry say a Native American should continue to be part of the seal, though in a different manner.

FourHawks said she and other Native American people would like to see some sort of tribute to the fact that Massachusetts would have been a doomed colony had the Wampanoags not shown compassion and taught the pilgrims how to survive, including what to eat and what to harvest.

“There could be a more positive image on the flag depicting that,” FourHawks said.

James-Perry concurred. “Yes, the state flag should include Wampanoag imagery — and that can be designed in concert with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, who can work with our tribal artisans to create concepts and work with the state,” James-Perry said. “It’s 2019, and the imagery should reflect our dignity, humanity, rights and equality.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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