For more than 100 years, Massachusetts has used as its state seal a colonial swordsman’s disembodied arm brandished over a Native American. The same coat of arms has also been on the state flag since 1971. No wonder there is a move to change that at upcoming town meetings in Wellfleet on Sept. 12 and in Truro on Sept. 26.
Though Native Americans have protested the state flag for years, a group of legislatures have recently taken up the cause and are trying to create a commission to revise the flag, seal, and motto. The motto reads, in Latin, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” or “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
According to vexillologists, or flag scholars, both the motto and the sword refer not to the victory over Native American peoples but to the Pilgrims’ attitude about their own native country, England. Scholars say the sword is related to the motto on the ribbon, not to the indigenous man below it, Yvonne Abraham reported in the Boston Globe back in 2015.
But that distinction is lost on most. On the face of it, both the motto and sword relate directly to the Native American.
Paula Peters, of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, who consulted on the new Native American exhibit at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, said, “I remember as a teenager being offended by it and not knowing who to complain to. It really takes a movement to change something that has been so deeply ingrained.”
One could regard keeping the original seal as a matter of preserving state history, she said, but to her, it “is threatening and offensive and something that needs to be changed. There have been so many offensive mascots and slogans, it could become someone’s full-time job to put out all those fires.”
The seal is enshrined in stained glass at the State House.
This year, the Washington Redskins football team finally abandoned its name. And just last month, the Barnstable School Committee voted to retire its Red Raider mascot, according to the Cape Cod Times.
The articles on both Wellfleet and Truro town meeting warrants are nonbinding, but urge state Rep. Paul Mark, of the Second Berkshire District, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, of Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties, to continue their “strong support” for H.2776 and S.1877, which would form a 20-member commission to revise the flag and seal. Five seats would be reserved for Native Americans, five for legislators, and the remainder for historical and cultural representatives. The legislation is before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.
If it makes it out of committee and is passed, it must be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, who has stated publicly that he is “open to discussions about changing the state seal,” according to the State House News Service.