Thursday, May 19, 2022

Changing the Massachusetts State Seal

New content on this website/blog, as of May 10, 2022, no longer represents columns published in the Beacon-Villager, because May 5th was the last issue printed on paper, B-V continuing as an e-paper. 

The content below is copied verbatim from an email sent by David Detmold, who has been active in seeking a change to the Massachusetts State Seal, which appears, among other places, on every town name sign one sees when entering the towns. David's contact info is 

On Tuesday, May 17th, the Special Commission on the Official Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth voted unanimously to seek a complete redesign of the flag, seal and motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The six Indigenous members of the special commission (co-chair Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, Melissa Harding-Ferretti, chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag, Elizabeth Solomon, treasurer of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, and Brittney Walley, member of the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc nation) met in caucus prior to the May 17th meeting to discuss the path forward. The commission had been beset with delays in the appointment process, internal obstacles and procedural problems since it was established by the passage of enabling legislation on January 6th, 2021.

On Tuesday, the Indigenous leaders on the commission pressed their colleagues to decide whether the full commission intends to seek minor revisions to the current flag, seal and motto, or to reject the current imagery entirely and start anew. After polling all the 17 members present, (Senator Marc Pacheco and the senate minority leader’s appointee, Michael Amato, were absent) the commission voted unanimously in favor of a total redesign.

The commission was originally charged with reporting back its recommendations for a new design for the seal and motto of the Commonwealth to the state legislature by October of last year. But not all members had even been appointed by that time. Since January, the commission has been meeting regularly, on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 11 a.m., and working toward a new reporting deadline of December of 2022. The commission, anticipating the breadth of its work, now hopes the legislature will extend that reporting deadline once more, until March 31st of 2023.

As of Tuesday, the commission appears to have overcome internal hurdles to arrive at a clear consensus. On Tuesday, the united call of the Indigenous leaders for a total redesign received a ringing endorsement from the director of Mass Humanities, commission co-chair Brian Boyles, who delivered the following statement before the unanimous vote of his colleagues:

Statement from Brian Boyles, director, Mass Humanities:

I believe a full redesign of the seal and motto are necessary, given the charges of the special commission. There’s no way that I can examine the seal, or the context in which it was created,  without concluding that it is harmful, both to each of us as residents, and of the reputation of Massachusetts. There’s no interpretation that leads me back to the qualities of peace, justice, liberty, equality and education that are stated in the legislation that created this commission, and at this very historic moment, I think we have a unique opportunity as residents of Massachusetts to do the hard work to create a seal and motto that do justice to the best that this Commonwealth has to offer, and to reckon with history, both visually and in the origins of the current seal and motto. I base these feelings in the wisdom received from my colleagues on this commission, who were named to this commission because of their expertise and their leadership in their communities, and the words of our Native colleagues as expressed in the History and Usages subcommittee only drove that home to me on May 10th.

I hope we can continue to foster this historic moment with collaboration and respect as we envision the path for a new seal and motto. I serve as a leader of an organization where every day we see the will of the people of the Commonwealth to reckon with our history, to not settle for stereotypes, to respond to a changing population, to dig into the archives and records to elevate the voice of people, and in particular Native people, who were marginalized and erased from the stories we tell about Massachusetts.

I think people in Massachusetts are wicked smart, and they are bold, and they should not settle for a seal that sells all of us short.  We have discussed the context in the historical record, and I base my feelings today on a full redesign of the seal and motto in part on the historical record left by Edmund Garrett, the designer of the 1898 seal, who in 1900 wrote an artist’s statement for New England Magazine, Vol. 23, which can be located with a Google search.

I note in particular, first the charge, or the figure of the Native man, the face of that figure was taken from a photograph plucked by the Secretary of State at that time William Olin from the Bureau of Ethnography in Washington DC of Thomas Little Shell, a Chippewa leader who never resided in Massachusetts. The figure is based on a skeleton held at the Peabody Museum in Harvard University. No Native residents were consulted in its selection, a reflection of centuries of exclusion on the part of the Commonwealth from land, laws, and historical records of Indigenous residents.

The figure in the shield, secondly, holds a bow that according to Garrett was taken from an unnamed Native man shot by a settler, William Goodnough, in Sudbury, in 1665. That bow serves as a reminder that should any person know the full context and record, they would understand what emerges from the violence brought on by a people in their own land.

Finally the sword and the hand in the crest is modelled on that of Myles Standish. We know from the record that Myles Standish killed Native people. He was even reprimanded by his own Pilgrim colleagues for doing this.

These are the elements of the seal. The intentions were quite clear, and the construction was done in harmful ways. When we consider the motto: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty,” given the origins, and what we know of the history, those words do not ring true to me. I believe they too must go. I don’t see any way to tweak, or edit them, that can do justice to the long history of erasure and oppression of Native peoples since the arrival of the Pilgrims. I see no way to redeem those symbols. To do so would be to give priority to people whose violence should not be a source of pride but of apology and reconciliation.