by David Detmold
After 36 years of delay, the Massachusetts legislature has finally taken a significant step toward changing the racist, insulting imagery and wording of the state’s flag and seal. Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill into law on January 11 that paves the way for a commission to study and recommend a new seal and motto by October 1. [Mass. Peace Action has been part of a broad coalition of organizations fighting for the change.]
Since 1629, the official symbol of Massachusetts has featured a white supremacist caricature of a Native person holding a downward pointed arrow, and a white hand brandishing a colonial broadsword over the Native person’s head. A Latin motto underneath the image translates: “Peace Under the Sword.” Now that symbol is headed for the trash bin of history.
In the final minutes of the legislative session, past midnight on January 6, legislators rushed to put their approval on the “resolve” to change the flag and seal, a measure which the great African American State Rep. Byron Rushing first introduced with the support of the Mass. Commission on Indian Affairs in 1984. Rushing reintroduced that resolve year after year, only to have it blocked by his (mostly white) colleagues for 17 consecutive sessions. Now, at last, the legislature has chosen to come to terms with our grim history of colonialism and the ongoing oppression of Native people in their birthright lands.
This acknowledgement, while only a tentative first step toward healing relations with Native Nations, is not the less welcome for being long overdue. Advocates will need to be vigilant in the months ahead to make sure the commission does its work carefully and promptly. The days when the government of Massachusetts offered cash bounties for the scalps of Native people must be buried along with the state flag that glorified such violence.
Mahtowin Munro, of United American Indians of New England, said the resolve represents a “first step toward repairing the harm done to Indigenous people. As the new session opens, we will be back at the State House to present bills to ban Native American sports team mascots, to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day statewide, to protect Native heritage, to ensure improved educational outcomes for Native students, and to include curriculum on Indigenous history and cultures in Massachusetts public schools.”
Four hundred years have passed since the Pilgrims first planted their colony at Pawtuxet, initiating a wave of land taking, viral plagues, and armed conquest that swept across the continent. While it may seem difficult to conceive of reparation for genocide and the removal of Native children from their cultures, substantive issues like land return, cooperation in cultural preservation, improvements in the provision of health care and educational opportunity, and the assurance of an adequate economic base on their own lands for all Native Nations must now be on the table, starting here in the Commonwealth.
With the establishment of a special commission to invite leaders of Native Nations of the region now called Massachusetts to sit with state legislators to design a new state flag and seal, the change for meaningful dialogue will open.
In this time of climate crisis, species collapse and the ongoing degradation of the Earth which sustains us all, the voices and leadership of Native people are urgently needed and earnestly sought.
We thank the state legislators of Massachusetts for inviting this dialogue, especially lead sponsors Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, Rep. Nika Elugardo, Sen. Jason Lewis, and Sen. Jo Comerford and, of course, former Rep. Byron Rushing. We look forward to the day, coming soon, when children in our schools will learn from the living Native cultures of this land beneath a new state flag and seal, one that truly reflects the ideals of harmony, respect and understanding among all who share the Commonwealth today.
—David Detmold is the coordinator of the changethemassflag.com website and is a resident of Great Falls, Montague, MA.