Senate Approves Commission to Revise or Redesign Massachusetts Seal and Motto

by | Aug 9, 2020

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.

“As legislators, it is our duty to create a Commonwealth that is welcoming and inclusive for all,” said Senator Michael Moore (D-Millbury), Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. “By passing this bill, it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation about our current state seal and come up with a new one that is a better representation of our communities.”

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.