There is a renewed effort to change the state seal, particularly the arm and sword above a Native American that is seen by some as a sign of oppression. The original bill was filed in 1984 by former state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Roxbury, and has been refiled every year since with no movement.
This year, groups like the Quakers, including Friends on Martha’s Vineyard, have taken up the cause. The Cambridge City Council discussed removing the flag from City Hall, and some towns on Cape Cod even debated sending resolutions in support of the legislation at their town meetings.
Bruce Nevin, in a Letter to the Editor published last week on behalf of the Friends of the Martha’s Vineyard monthly meeting, urged support of the legislation aimed at creating a study group to create a more appropriate seal. The letter was also sent to state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro.
The current seal includes the image of a Native American. Separately and above that image is an arm with a sword in it with a Latin phrase that translates to, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Nevin wrote, “the juxtaposition of images necessarily evokes a very different nonverbal message about genocide in the Massachusetts Colony and in the Commonwealth that it became. That this evocation is unintended and accidental, forgetful of that shameful history and oblivious to its more covert continuation into the present, is itself a further injury, to which is added the insult that the image is of an Ojibwa man, not native to Massachusetts.”
In a follow-up email commenting on how many years the bill has languished, Nevin wrote, “Maybe 35 years is long enough persistence.”
Both Fernandes and Cyr told The Times they support the legislation.
“When it comes to issues impacting the Native American community, I defer to the opinions of the Wampanoag Tribe members who have called our region home long before the state existed,” Fernandes wrote. “In a meeting this spring with the chairwoman and other tribal members, the hostile imagery of the flag was raised as a concern, which is why I support a legislative commission to pursue changing the design.”
For Cyr, who is gay, the issue is personal. He understands how symbolism can hurt people in minority groups. He said it’s important to take a deeper look at things like the seal, and that’s the bill’s intent.
“I think that symbolism and representation matter, and that the process is evolving,” Cyr said. “This is a bill that takes a look at that, and looks to update our state seal.”
The state’s federally recognized and state-recognized tribes have attempted to raise the issue through the years, particularly through the state Commission on Indian Affairs. It’s never gained enough traction.
In a statement released to The Times, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), points out that the tribe likes that a Native American is represented on the flag, but takes issue with the arm and sword.
“We respect other people’s opinions about the appropriateness of the Massachusetts seal. However, most of our Tribe has historically only objected to the arm holding sword over the head of the Indian depicted in the center of the seal, and the Latin motto: “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem” (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty),” she wrote. “We live with so many derogatory images of Native peoples that seek to oppress, denigrate, and or intimidate us since the 1600s. Throughout the historical depictions from Massachusetts to the paintings and statues in Washington, D.C., and all over the country; most of the imagery depicting Indians and the history of this country has Indians being killed, under duress, or posed in a subjugated position. Rarely are there depictions of us standing and or presenting us proudly.
“To us, it is important to have the reminder of who the first aboriginal inhabitants of these lands are, since we as Wampanoag and all Eastern Woodlands Algonquian Indians are all too often forgotten. So to erase the image of the Native is to also continue to erase us from history and the specific history of the Commonwealth.
“We wholeheartedly support the removal of the sword and the motto. However, as I was brought up, we’ve always been comfortable and sort of proud of the fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at least recognized that we were here. And for our part, here we have always been, and here we shall always remain.”
Cyr said the renewed attention on the symbolism should help people to take notice. “I think the more that we hear from people about any issue helps. The more you hear from folks in the Native American community, whether that be Aquinnah or Mashpee or more broadly, I think that helps,” Cyr said. “I think that we are an imperfect union, right, and we’re trying to make sure this is a commonwealth that represents everyone who lives in the Commonwealth.”
Cyr pointed out that just a generation ago, people in the LGBTQ community were reviled, and the language used by some to describe that community was offensive. “Now June is LGBTQ pride month,” he said.
The bill, co-sponsored by state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Rep. Nika Elugardo, calls for a commission to look at the symbolism and determine if the state can improve the message it sends with that seal. The 15-member commission would represent tribes, as well as a cross-section of state government officials. It would be the first review in more than 100 years.
A spokesman for Gov. Charlie Baker said the administration will carefully review the legislation should it reach his desk.
“This isn’t the first time the seal’s been updated, and it’s important for us to live up to the ideals of the Massachusetts Constitution, which is the basis for the U.S. Constitution,” Cyr said. “Symbols matter.”
What the seal means
- The Indian represents the native people of Massachusetts.
- The arrow is pointed downward to indicate the Indian is peaceful.
- The star indicates Massachusetts is one of the original 13 states.
- The sword illustrates the Latin motto written in gold on a blue ribbon on the bottom of the shield, which is translated to mean, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”