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Four Mass. towns to weigh state emblem depicting Native American



Recorder Staff
Thursday, May 17, 2018

Four Franklin County towns will be weighing in on the state seal and flag depicting a colonial broadsword over the head of an American Indian.

Voters in Gill, Orange, Wendell and New Salem will decide on a resolution in support of creating a special commission to investigate and recommend changes to official symbols, which many find offensive.

The bill, filed by state Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, has been filed for the past 34 years, and is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. It was recommended by the House committees on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight and Rules and was referred in February to the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1989, the measure passed in the House, but then died in the Senate — something that could happen again, since the measure has not yet been introduced in the Senate.

The proposed House resolution says with the approaching 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ 1620 landing at Plymouth, citizens have a chance to reflect on this history “and come to a new awareness of a better relationship” between descendants of European immigrants and those of Native Americans.

It cites “forced internment of thousands of so-called ‘praying Indians’ on Deer Island, in Boston Harbor, where they died by the hundreds of exposure in 1675, their subsequent enslavement” and the offering of sterling as bounty for the scalps of Native men, women and children in Massachusetts beginning in 1686. Native Americans were legally prohibited from even stepping foot in Boston until 2004, when the 1675 prohibition was repealed.

David Detmold of Turners Falls said if Rushing’s bill doesn’t pass this session, he hopes to bring the resolution to other communities around the state.

“We think the time is right,” Detmold said. He researched the history of the seal for Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and then testified at the committee hearing last spring.

“On one level,” Detmold said, “this is symbolic of the relations between the people we’ve named our state after and the colonists.”

John Peters, executive director of the Commission on Indian Affairs, told the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight last spring, “I sincerely request that you consider our shared history and be cognizant of the genocidal accuracy of the symbolism that the seal in part portrays.”

The state seal, which is based on one dating from the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s formation in 1629 until 1692, depicted an Algonquian clothed in a leafed loin cloth and holding a downward-pointed arrow, with the words, “Come over and help us,” beneath two pine trees.

The seal approved by the Legislature in 1898.

From 1692 to 1775, the official seal for the colony displayed the British royal coat of arms, depicting Massachusetts as a province of England under the control of the British monarch. In 1775, when Massachusetts shrugged off British control and claimed independence from the throne, a new seal was created. The seal, engraved by Boston metalworker Paul Revere of midnight-ride fame, depicted a typical American patriot with a tricorn hat and knickers, holding a sword in one hand and the Magna Carta in the other. Encircling the patriot was a Latin phrase, which translates into: “By the sword we seek peace but peace only under liberty.” This seal was in use until a new seal was needed for the newly formed state of Massachusetts.

The state’s official seal, adopted in 1885, shows a blue shield with an Algonquin native in gold holding a bow in his right hand and a downward arrow in his left, with a five-pointed silver star above his right arm, representing Massachusetts as one of the original 13 states. A crest above displays a blue and gold braid with an arm grasping a broadsword, with the state motto in Latin written in gold on a blue ribbon streaming below the native. Attributed to the English soldier and politician Algernon Sidney, and dating to 1775, when the fledgling state was breaking ties with England, it translates as: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

Wompimeequin Wampatuck, chief of the tribal council of the Mattakeeset Tribe, told the House panel that when he sees the seal, the “first thing that jumps to mind is it’s a hostile environment.”

He said the centuries-old image portrays Indians in a “surrender state” and claimed the sword-wielding arm is that of Capt. Miles Standish, part of the pilgrim contingent that traveled to the South Shore aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

Wampatuck, who said his tribe chooses not to be federally recognized, said he has no qualms with depicting an American Indian on the seal and flag, and said, “we’d be more than honored” to have an Indian on the flag without the overtones of subjugation.

Sharon Tracy, who helped to circulate the petition for the New Salem warrant article, said, “If you think about it, the visual is fairly bloodthirsty, and the naked sword hanging over the head of a native American is kind of indicative of a particular mindset that existed hundreds of years ago, when the government put up lots of money if people would bring in scalps of women and children and men who were Native Americans.”

She added, “It seems to me that we should be moving along from that, recognizing how things operated back then and saying we don’t do things that way anymore. The norm has changed, but the visual we have representing this state has not changed. Visuals are very powerful things, so let’s fix it.”

The Wendell meeting is June 5. It’s followed by the continuation of the Gill meeting and the Orange and New Salem meetings on June 19.

The late Peter Kocot, the Northampton Democrat who co-chaired the House committee before his death in February, said before its recommendation of the bill, “I’m a strong proponent of increasing the level of education about Native American tribes and the role of the history of Massachusetts within the elementary and the entire secondary school curriculum.”

State House News Service reporting was included
in this article.