Massachusetts Legislators Eye Creating Commission That Could Ditch State Flag

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State legislators on Beacon Hill are considering a measure that would create a commission that would recommend changes to the state flag and state seal, which depict an American Indian and a sword above him.

Some Indian groups say the flag and seal are offensive. The state motto is also targeted by the measure.

The Great Seal of the Commonwealth includes the coat of arms of the state, which shows a standing Indian (meant to represent an Algonquin-speaking Wampanoag from colonial times) holding a bow and arrow with the arrow pointed downward, in a gesture of peace. Above the coat of arms is the official crest of the commonwealth, which is a disembodied right arm holding a broadsword.

The seal with the coat of arms appears in the middle of the state flag, with the crest above it, on a white field.

(The coat of arms is defined by Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 2, Section 1. The state flag is defined by Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 2, Section 3.)

The arm holding the sword is meant to depict Myles Standish, the Pilgrims’ military commander of the 1620s. Some current members of indigenous tribes object to Standish because he killed Indians.

A group called Change the Massachusetts Flag is pushing for the bill, arguing that the upward-pointing sword in the crest above the seal suggests Standish vanquishing the Wampanoag at the middle of the seal.

“Massachusetts has kept a sword hanging over the heads of Native Americans for hundreds of years. That’s a terrible symbol for our state,” the group’s web site states. “With the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing approaching in 2020, it’s time to change the Massachusetts Flag and Seal.”

Hartman Deetz, of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, who opposes the current state flag, said in March on WGBH-TV’s Greater Boston that a couple of changes would satisfy him.

“If we could just simply change this flag from that sword to a tree, which represents peace — maybe something about true peace and equality underneath it — we have a whole different meaning to the same symbolism,” Deetz said on Greater Boston.

But the proposed state commission would have a wider mandate than just making a couple of changes.

Massachusetts House Resolve 2776 states:

Resolved, that a special commission is hereby established (1) for the purpose of investigating the features of the official seal and motto of the commonwealth including those which potentially have been unwittingly harmful to or misunderstood by the citizens of the commonwealth and (2) for the purpose of examining the seal and motto of the commonwealth to ensure that they faithfully reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.

The commission shall make recommendations regarding a revised or new design of the seal of the commonwealth and a revised or new motto of the commonwealth, as described in sections 2 to 6 of chapter 2, inclusive and shall propose and design an educational program on the history and meaning of the seal and motto. 

Five of the 15 members of the proposed commission would be “of lineal descent from tribes.”

The measure is before the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. It currently has 30 sponsors.

While proposals to change the state flag have been around for decades, some observers see more momentum this year than in the past.

One example:  Last week, the Cambridge City Council voted to banish the state flag from the council’s chamber in Cambridge City Hall. State law requires that the flag be displayed somewhere in a municipality’s administrative building, but city councilors have decided they don’t want it near where they meet, on account of, in the words of the resolution, much emotional testimony from members of the Native American community and others that the symbolism on the state flag is a painful reminder of the history of oppression and genocide indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of the colonists.”

The seal includes the state motto in Latin, which translates roughly, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

The sword in the crest and the motto are references to fighting for liberty. When the first version of the current state seal was adopted in 1780, Massachusetts was at war with Great Britain as part of the American Revolution.

The words in the motto (“Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem”) are attributed to Algernon Sydney (1623-1683), an English political writer who was esteemed by 18th century American Patriots as a martyr to the cause of political freedom because he stood up against absolute monarchy and lost his head under King Charles II because of it.

E.H. Garrett, who worked on the current version of seal during the late 1800s, later wrote an article about the seal in New England Magazine in 1901. He noted that the seal’s design led to conflict at the time, but for a different reason.

“During the progress of the work of preparing the seal, many people objected that an Indian did not and should not stand for the state of Massachusetts,” Garrett wrote in New England Magazine.