The Massachusetts State Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that would establish a commission to study and redesign the Massachusetts state seal and motto in an effort to make it more inclusive and historically representational.
The legislation, Resolve establishing a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the commonwealth (S.1877), will create a commission to study the state seal. Many people, particularly members of Native American communities, find the seal offensive and unwittingly harmful, and others feel it perpetuates a misunderstanding of indigenous culture and history. The commission will be tasked with making recommendations for a revised or new seal and motto for the state. The state seal and motto are featured on the Massachusetts flag and other official insignia.
“COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter demonstrate that the social issues of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are entwined as the collective challenge to social structures solidifies,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, President of the North American Indian Center of Boston and a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. “Today’s vote in the Massachusetts Senate affirms that we can reconcile the identity of social systems while advocating and establishing needed change.”
“This bill provides a chance to begin a conversation about our history and reimagine what a truly inclusive state seal and motto can look like,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka. “The Senate will never waver on its commitment to making our Commonwealth welcoming for all, and so I am proud to see this proposal for a commission to study our seal and motto move forward. I would like to extend my gratitude to the many advocates who have continued to raise this issue, and to Senators Lewis and Comerford for their work and collaboration on this issue.”
“Our collective symbols of identity matter, and if they marginalize some of our fellow residents and perpetuate harmful stereotypes, they should be replaced,” said Senator Jason Lewis, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education and lead sponsor of the resolve. “I want to thank former Representative Byron Rushing, former Executive Director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs John ‘Slow Turtle’ Peters, and many other Native advocates and allies for championing this legislation for many years.”
The current state seal, adopted in 1898, prominently features a Native American figure. Historical records show that figure is a composite based on a portrait of a Native American chief from the Chippewa tribe —which is primarily located in Montana and the Dakotas, not Massachusetts. Above his head is an arm holding a colonial-era broadsword believed to be the sword of Myles Standish, a Plymouth Colony military commander known in part for killing Native Americans. The Native American holds a downward pointed arrow that has been interpreted as signifying the pacification of the native population.
Indigenous activists in Massachusetts have advocated for decades for a change to the Massachusetts seal, which is viewed by many as racist and over-generalizing. The original version of this bill was filed in 1985 by former State Representative Byron Rushing, a prominent Boston civil rights leader, and has been filed in some form in every session of the Massachusetts Legislature since then.
The commission will include:
- Five members appointed by the Commission on Indian Affairs who are descendants of tribes with a historical presence in the commonwealth;
- Four members appointed by the governor with relevant cultural and historical expertise;
- The executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs or a designee;
- The executive director of the Massachusetts Historical Commission or a designee;
- The executive director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities or a designee;
- The executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council or a designee; and
- The House and Senate chairs of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory; Oversight.
The commissioners will be appointed within 60 days of the bill becoming law and will make a final report by October 1, 2021.
The legislation now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.