Massachusetts seal stirs ire even as drive to alter it fades

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BOSTON – As debates about official symbols that some may consider inflammatory or even offensive pop up across the country, a push to change the Massachusetts state seal and flag is losing steam.

The seal, prominent on the flag, depicts a sword-wielding arm above an American Indian holding a bow and down-turned arrow with the Latin motto, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietam,” which loosely translated means “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” The imagery has long vexed local American Indian tribes and activists, who see it as a callous and inaccurate representation of the relationship between natives of the region and European settlers.

“When you think about someone coming in and liberating the property by the sword and that’s their motto, that’s certainly something we have a problem with,” said John Peters Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and a descendant of the Indians who met the Pilgrims in 1620.

Efforts to change the seal have ebbed and flowed over years. Most recently, the issue resurfaced after a white gunman killed nine black people in a shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting reignited the debate in the south over the use of symbols such as the Confederate battle flag on public property and in state regalia. South Carolina, for example, flew the flag on its Capitol grounds up until a few weeks after the killings.

In Massachusetts, attention refocused on the state seal and flag. A Boston Globe columnist decried the imagery, writing “It is hard to read it all together as anything but a flag designed by and for the colonial conquerors who made the Bay State, the ones who won the land – with a short time out for Thanksgiving dinner – by all but eradicating the people who got here first.”

Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, then a Republican presidential candidate, took a swipe at the image in an October interview with the Globe and the related website.

“What are y’all arguing about with your flag,” he asked. “You got an Indian with a – what’s that all about? … What is that – is the guy holding a severed arm?”

Within a few months, though, interest faded outside of some college campuses. In November, University of Massachusetts Amherst students demanded a change in the design, which is also used in the school’s seal, as protests against perceived racist connections to symbols and names broke out on campuses across the nation.

“We do live in occupied, colonized land,” student activist Charlotte Kelly told New England Public Radio at the time. “This land had been a part of indigenous communities before it became the University of Massachusetts. And for us to be capitalizing and using a Native American figure as our seal seems really hurtful and violent.”

Outside of the flagship campus, Peters points to lack of interest among Massachusetts residents as the reason why the state seal and flag remain unchanged, despite opposition from local Indian leaders. Until they can galvanize the general population, it will stay that way, he said.

“That’s how the world turns, by public outcry, and we haven’t been able to motivate that enough for the Legislature to take it into consideration,” he said.

Connecticut-based vexillologist Peter Orenski, who co-authored a book on American Indian flags, sees efforts to change the image as coming into conflict with basic human nature.

“Flags are an expression of emotion that becomes stronger with the using,” he said. “As you use a symbol, it becomes stronger and stronger,” he said. “You disregard the graphic, the historical significance of it. You just know it. It becomes yours.”

It’s not a phenomenon limited to the U.S., Orenski added. A fierce debate has raged in New Zealand over replacing the national flag, which incorporates the U.K.’s Union Jack, with an image more representative of the island-nation. Canada went through a similar struggle before adopting the Maple Leaf design it uses today and discarding one featuring the Union Jack in 1965.

In an informal survey Orenski conducted more than a decade ago, he found that American Indians and whites outside of Massachusetts viewed the state seal unfavorably. White Bay State residents, though, overwhelmingly backed the design.

As for how that lines up with Massachusetts’ reputation as a liberal, progressive state, Orenski turned to recent history.

“If you remember the busing controversy, it was most acute in Boston,” he said, referring to events of the 1970s. “All these things have a limit. It’s the ‘Guess who is coming for dinner’ syndrome.”

Flags aren’t alone in stirring up controversy. There is the never-ending debate in the Washington metro area over the name of its National Football League franchise, the Redskins, for example.

Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis are weighing changing the state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” because of concerns about its lyrics. The song, which dates to the Civil War era, calls for secession and glorifies the Baltimore Riot of 1861, when city residents attacked Union soldiers headed to Washington to defend the capital against the Confederacy.

Those Union troops? They belonged to the 6th Massachusetts Infantry.

At the Indian Affairs Commission in Boston, Peters sees another chance to revive the debate over the state seal with the coming quadricentennial anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth. Given that the sword hanging over the American Indian’s head in the seal is said to represent the blade carried off the Mayflower by Myles Standish, attention to the symbols could be renewed, he said.

“I think where it’s Myles Standish’s sword and we’re coming up to 400 years after the Pilgrims, it might be a good time to talk about its significance,” Peters said.