Sen. Lewis Delivers Remarks on Legislation to Change the State Seal

Senator Lewis delivered the following remarks during the July 28, 2020 formal session of the Massachusetts Senate during the debate on S.1877, Resolve establishing a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the commonwealth:

Thank you Madam President. I rise to enthusiastically speak in support of a Resolve establishing a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the commonwealth.

I’d like to start by acknowledging that the land upon which the State House stands is the ancestral land of the Massachusett tribe.

Most residents in our state are probably familiar with our state flag. They no doubt recognize the white field, blue crest and gold figure. But few people stop to consider the meaning of this image — our state seal which we display as the official emblem of our Commonwealth on our flag and in many other places.

Our state seal has changed a number of times over the past 400 years. The current state seal was designed by Edmund Garrett and adopted in 1898. The Native American figure is a composite of features based primarily on a representation of a Chief of the Chippewa Indians. The Chippewa lived mainly in the upper Midwest, and not in Massachusetts. According to Garrett, this figure was selected because he was considered “a fine specimen of an Indian.” Above his head is an arm holding a colonial-era broadsword believed to be the sword of Myles Standish, a military commander for the Plymouth Colony known in part for killing Native Americans. The Native American figure holds a downward pointed arrow that has been interpreted as signifying the pacification of the native population.

This imagery on our state seal and flag has long been viewed by indigenous people and others as racist, symbolizing white supremacy and ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of this region. Massachusetts and Mississippi are the only two states with flags that contain racist imagery. Recently, the Mississippi legislature voted to remove the confederate imagery from their state flag.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing, and I believe that we have a responsibility to tell the story of our history truthfully. Part of an honest reckoning with our history is to replace images and symbols that perpetuate harmful racist stereotypes, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

I’m proud to have joined with Senator Comerford and Representatives Sabadosa and Elugardo in filing this legislation to revise our state seal and flag.

The special commission created by this bill would be composed of people with relevant historical and cultural expertise, including Native Americans from tribes with a historical presence in Massachusetts. The commission would be tasked with recommending a revised or new design for our state seal, which would then need to be approved by the state legislature. State law requires the flag to display the seal, so any new seal would also mean a new flag. The goal would be to ensure that our state seal and flag reflect and embody our Commonwealth’s commitment to peace, justice, liberty, and equality for all. The process undertaken by this commission would be inclusive and thoughtful, hopefully fostering a healthy dialogue, particularly in our schools, about our state’s history.

Former State Representative and civil rights leader Byron Rushing first filed a version of this legislation in 1985. He was inspired by the advocacy of a class of elementary school students in Amherst. I expect you’ll hear more about these students and their school from Senator Comerford shortly. In the 1990s, John Peters worked with Rep. Rushing to build support for this change to the state seal. Mr. Peters – known as Slow Turtle – served as the Executive Director of the Mass Commission on Indian Affairs, a position his son Jim Peters now holds. Slow Turtle was a state and national leader in fighting for Native American rights and justice.

My interest in this legislation came about through my relationship with Rep. Rushing, whom I considered a mentor when I served with him in the House of Representatives. As many of you know, I grew up in South Africa when it was under the racist and oppressive apartheid regime. Back in the 1980s, Byron was one of the local leaders that pushed Massachusetts to become the first state to divest from South Africa, a strategy that ultimately helped bring about the end of apartheid.

Passing this legislation today in the Senate, and hopefully seeing it signed into law in the near future, would be a fitting tribute to Byron’s decades-long campaign for human and civil rights in Massachusetts and beyond.

In closing, I want to thank you Madam President for your strong support for advancing this legislation. I am also very grateful to the Senator from Northampton, who is a leader in our state on issues affecting indigenous people, as well as the Senators from Taunton and Salem.

We also would not be taking up this bill today without the tireless advocacy of indigenous leaders from multiple tribes, Native American organizations and their allies. In particular, I would like to thank:

  • Jean-Luc Pierite of the North American Indian Center of Boston
  • Mahtowin Monro, the co-leader of United American Indians of New England
  • Faries Gray, Sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe
  • Jim Peters, Executive Director of the Mass Commission on Indian Affairs
  • David Detmold, from Change the Mass Flag
  • The Massachusetts Human Rights Coalition
  • Massachusetts Peace Action, and
  • The Network for Social Justice in my hometown of Winchester

Madam President, our collective symbols of identity matter, and if they marginalize some of our fellow residents and perpetuate harmful stereotypes, then they should be reconsidered and replaced.

Today, I hope the Senate will take another step forward for racial justice, and when a vote is taken I ask that it be by a call of the yeas and nays. Thank you.