It’s Time to Address Racial Justice for Native Americans: Change the MA State Flag-Seal and Ban the Use of Native American Sports Mascots

Native American advocates, legislators, and supporters called for the Massachusetts Legislature to pass legislation important to Native Americans at a press conference held on the steps of the State House on Thursday, July 16 at 11 AM.

The 3 bills are:
1.       Resolve Providing for the Creation of a Special Commission Relative to the
Seal and Motto of the Commonwealth (S.1877/H.2776)
2.      An Act to Ban the Use of Native American Mascots by Public Schools in the
Commonwealth (S.247 / H.443)
3.    An Act to Protect Native American Heritage (S.1811/H.2948)

Speakers included tribal and native leaders, state senators and representatives, high school students, and local activists. While racist counter-protesters chanting ‘all lives matter’ tried to down out BIPOC voices, the message was heard loud and clear: change the flag and seal, and ban native mascots.

Now that Mississippi has decided to retire its confederate state flag, Massachusetts is the last US state whose flag includes representations of white supremacy.  It features a Colonial broadsword held in a white hand over the head of a composite “Ideal Native American,” and its Latin motto begins, “By the sword we seek peace…”

Hartman Deetz (Mashpee Wampanoag) made remarks about why the Massachusetts flag and seal need to be changed. “The English cut off the head of Metacom (King Philip) and displayed it on the top of a pike in Plymouth. That’s what that sword is above the head of the Native man on the state flag. That sword continues to hang over the head of Native people in Massachusetts. It’s not just symbolism. That’s literally what happened to the leader of our people. He was beheaded…. and we continue to live under that threat today, from continued genocide, from continued dispossessions, from continued oppression, here in Massachusetts and all across the country. This is a symbol of white supremacy.”

Anaelisa Jacobsen of Manos Unidas Multicultural Educational Cooperative in Pittsfield said that, “Manos Unidas has been working to get rid of the racist flag and seal that depict a Native American with a sword over his head. Bill S.1887 / H.2776  seeks to change that abominable message and symbol into something that our dear Native brothers and sisters and everyone in Massachusetts can be proud of. In these times, we must deeply ask ourselves, what symbols do we want to uphold and which do we want to abolish in order to promote the values of a forward-thinking, multicultural state? We must seek symbols that instill pride, not shame and prejudice, symbols that unite, not separate.”

Commenting on the bill to ban the use of Native American mascots, the Sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, Faries Gray, said: “My tribe is not in support of any Indigenous mascots. We don’t feel like we are being honored by any mascots. We feel like a trophy. ‘We conquered you and this is our trophy.’ It’s insane we have to deal with it. We’re still here. We’re a living people.”

Other tribal nations in Massachusetts have supported the call for a prohibition on all Native American sport team mascots/nicknames/logos in Massachusetts public schools. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wrote: “A state law to address the problem of these nicknames/logos is necessary because many communities in Massachusetts resist calls to eliminate the Native American nicknames/logos used by their schools. The Tribe/Nation urges you to listen to our voices, and the voices of other Native American tribal nations and organizations that represent Native American people who reside in the state of Massachusetts. And, we urge you to consider the research, which clearly demonstrates that Native American mascots in sport are not educationally sound for Native American and non-Indigenous youth.”

Brittney Peauwe Wunnepog (Little Leaf) Walley of the Nipmuc Nation added that “Using Indigenous Peoples as mascots is dehumanizing. This is not a new or novel idea at this point; it’s an obvious fact. My sincerest belief is that the concept of using Indigenous Peoples as mascots should already be a non-issue. It is frustrating to know that countless tribal members before me have already made it abundantly clear that it is unacceptable, and yet the issue has not been resolved.”

Rhonda Anderson, Iñupiaq-Athabaskan, a member of the MA Commission on Indian Affairs, explained that, ?Mascots erase the identity of Native people, generate stereotypes, and portray us as people in the past.” The mascot issue needs to be taken up at the statewide level since it relates to civil rights.

Native American advocates and allies also seeking passage of “An Act to Protect Native American Heritage”. This bill would refine Native Americans Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enforcement to include all publicly funded entities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. If passed into law, this would further ensure the repatriation of sacred and funerary objects to the tribal communities of origin as well as deter auction houses from being able to obtain such items.  As Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Malthais of Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) testified in 2016, “Tribal cultural heritage belongs to the tribal community of its origin as a whole. And by tribal custom, cannot be alienated from that community by any individual or group without the expressed free, prior, and informed consent of that tribe.”

Putting the need for the legislation into a broader context, Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of the North American Indian Center of Boston, a statewide Native American community organization based in Jamaica Plain, noted that “What COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter demonstrate in plain terms is that our current social systems need structural and foundational change. Symbols from flags, mascots, and names on public places on to the design of infrastructure like roads and pipelines are the branding of the extraction of resources, wealth, and labor from BIPOC peoples. To change the system is to change the branding. These are not mutually exclusive, unless we are simply appeasing the electorate or window dressing.”

According to Mahtowin Munro from United American Indians of New England and the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda, “Four hundred years after the arrival of the Pilgrims from Europe, all too many Indigenous concerns remain unaddressed. Any authentic efforts to address racial injustice need to include and respect the voices of Indigenous people and ensure that Native American concerns are addressed. Supporting this legislation should be a bipartisan effort to begin to redress longstanding grievances. The current session of the Massachusetts legislature has a historic opportunity to begin to listen to Indigenous voices statewide and take first steps toward repairing relationships with Native Americans by passing this meaningful legislation.”