Panel exploring changes to Massachusetts state seal ready to resume work
The stalled effort to come up with alternatives to the Massachusetts state motto and seal, condemned as racist by many for its depiction of the state's Indigenous peoples, is regaining momentum.
The panel that was established in 2021 by the state Legislature to review and suggest changes missed its deadline at the end of last year and sought an extension. Lawmakers on Thursday gave it until Nov. 15 to finish its work and forward its recommendations to the Legislature, which would have to approve any changes.
“We’re grateful for the Legislature’s support and ready to get back to work,” said Brian Boyles, co-chair of the 19-member Special Commission on the Official Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth.
The extension was included in a $1.1 billion supplemental budget approved by the Legislature, which still awaits Democratic Gov. Maura Healey’s signature. A spokesperson for the governor's office says it is under review.
The current seal, which dates to the late 19th century, features a depiction of a Native American man beneath a disembodied arm holding a sword that critics say is a reference to English colonists’ cruelty to local tribes centuries ago.
It's everywhere. It's on the state flag, on multiple prominent places around the Statehouse, on the shoulder patches of state police troopers, and countless other places.
The state’s Latin motto that translates to, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty,” dates to about 1659 and is attributed to English politician Algernon Sydney, according to the secretary of state’s office. It too has been condemned because it does not represent the experiences of Indigenous peoples, who were often denied peace and liberty in Colonial times.
There have been efforts to change the state seal for decades. But the latest effort started in early 2021 with the creation of the commission, which is made up of lawmakers, representatives of local tribes, historians and others.
Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the Board of Directors of the North American Indian Center of Boston, a group pushing for changes to the seal and motto, said Friday that the pace of the panel's progress has been frustrating at times. But he said he is heartened by the deadline extension.
“This is a move in a positive direction in terms of getting the job done," said Pierite, a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. “There has been so much work, just not by the commission itself, but from the many people who have pushed for this for 35 years. All that work should be dignified by the conclusion of the process."
He pointed to Mississippi, which changed its state flag within a matter of months. Lawmakers there voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the flag in June 2020, and voters approved a new design in November 2020.
The comparison to Mississippi is not entirely fair, said Boyles, the executive director of the nonprofit Mass Humanities.
“That seal is everywhere you look in Massachusetts," he said. “What’s absent is an acknowledgement of a long history of violence and marginalization of Indigenous people. And in that way, I think Massachusetts is probably behind where Mississippi was when it came to the acknowledgement of enslavement."
Brittney Peauwe Wunnepog Walley, co-vice chair of the commission and a member of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc tribe, justified the amount of time the commission has taken so far.
“This is really deep work, and anything worth doing is worth doing right, and doing this right is going to take a lot of time,” she said recently. “There’s a lot of complex things going into this, as far as thinking through the layers: ‘Why are we changing it? What are we changing it to?' There are so many questions."
The commission, which approved a motion to create a new design for the seal and motto at a May meeting, has made some progress.
In an interim report to the Legislature late last year, it suggested that a new design for the seal should include symbols or elements from nature that might better reflect the state, which could include native plants or animals, such as cranberries or a chickadee, geographic or nautical references, or another significant symbol such as a mayflower blossom.
The motto meanwhile should include aspirational terms, such as equality, liberty, peace and hope, and be easier to understand, the interim report said.
Now that the deadline has been extended, one of the commission's top priorities will be gathering public input, Boyles said.