It’s a symbol emblazoned on the Massachusetts state flag and displayed on government edifices and documents, and for a contingent of residents the seal of the commonwealth represents violence perpetrated by European settlers against Native Americans.
Objections to the seal have sparked a call for legislation to consider changing it. However, efforts to change the seal date back about 30 years, according to one state lawmaker.
The state seal depicts a Native American holding a bow in one hand and an arrow pointed downwards – representing peacefulness or pacification – in the other, with a disembodied arm holding a sword above him.
Wompimeequin Wampatuck, chief of the tribal council of the Mattakeeset Tribe, testified during a hearing on the issue Tuesday that when he sees the seal the “first thing that jumps to mind is it’s a hostile environment.”
Wampatuck said the centuries-old image portrays Native Americans in a “surrender state” and claimed the sword-wielding arm is that of Captain 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 a Native American 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.
State Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, filed legislation that would establish a commission, including at least three people of Native American descent, to determine whether the seal and state motto “accurately reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality, and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”
Rushing said the bill had been filed as long ago as three decades. He believes it might have success this time around because “there is a lot more concern about how we respond to people of color.”
Those opposed to changing the seal over the years have argued that it is a “sacred symbol,” according to Rushing. A spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin said the bill is “under review.” The secretary’s website reports that the seal was adopted by Gov. John Hancock in 1780 and later enshrined in law. Hancock was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first governor of Massachusetts after the founding of the country.