Massachusetts Senate Approves Amendment to Change the Flag and Seal

by David Detmold

The Massachusetts Senate voted 30 – 9 on Thursday, May 23rd to require Governor Maura Healey to take the next step in the historic process of replacing the violent imagery of the Massachusetts flag and seal.

The vote came in the form of an amendment to the state budget. If it survives the upcoming conference committee with the House, the amendment would task the governor with appointing a 10-member advisory commission with a one year timeline to “select a final design for a new seal and new flag of the Commonwealth, and a new motto of the Commonwealth.” The amendment would allocated $100,000 to hire a professional designer to prepare the new design.

Two of the ten members of the new advisory commission would be Indigenous leaders chosen by the director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs.

If the amendment survives the conference committee to be included in the final state budget, the advisory commission will be required to hold its first meeting within two months of final passage. The new commission would solicit “design ideas from the general public,” for a new flag, seal and motto, choose three finalists, and hold public hearings in at least three locations across the Commonwealth before choosing a final design. The governor would then “submit legislation to amend relevant sections of the General Laws to codify the new state motto and designs for the seal and flag.”

Passage of the amendment would complete the work of the recent 19-member Special Commission on the Seal and Motto, which issued its findings on November 15th, 2023. The special commission called for the complete revision of the current flag, seal and motto of Massachusetts, finding the current symbol harmful, and easily interpreted as a “celebration of the history of violence perpetuated by settlers against Indigenous populations.”  It was formed by the Legislature in January 2021 after a campaign supported by MAPA among other groups.

The Senate budget amendment, offered by Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester and Sen. Rebecca Rausch of Needham, also requires the new advisory commission to outline ways to implement “educational programs to help residents understand local Indigenous history and the historical underpinnings of the previous and new seals, mottos and flags from an Indigenous perspective.”

Late Thursday, as debate advanced slowly through a thicket of hundreds of budget amendments, Sen. Lewis held up discussion of the flag and seal until the very last. Finally, he rose and pointed upward toward the gilded bas relief seal, looming above the Senate president’s dais, with its depiction of a white settler’s hand holding a Colonial sword over the head of an Indigenous figure, and the Latin motto, “She seeks a quiet peace under the sword, but peace with liberty.”

Lewis said it was the one aspect of the Senate chamber he did not like.

“We have a responsibility to tell the story of our history honestly,” he said.

Lewis explained that the sword held above the head of the Native figure on the seal was modelled after the broadsword of the Pilgrim’s military commander, Myles Standish, who used that sword to kill Native people. The sword’s placement on the state flag and seal has long been viewed as a symbol of “white supremacy and ethnic cleansing,” Lewis said.

Lewis paid tribute to the foundational role played by former Boston representative Byron Rushing, who worked with the late Mashpee Wampanoag medicine man John Slow Turtle Peters, former director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, to first introduce legislation to change the flag and seal (“if you can believe it”) in 1985.

He urged the Senate now to replace that harmful imagery with a new “aspirational and inclusive” flag and seal, to educate the public about the meaning of the state’s symbols, and to complete the work the Senate initiated in July of 2020, when it voted unanimously to establish the Special Commission on the Seal and Motto.

Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton spoke about how she first came to be involved, decades ago, in the effort to change the Massachusetts flag and seal when she took part in a statewide walk, inspired by Slow Turtle, with the monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji Peace Pagoda in Leverett, to call attention to the violence inherent in the state symbol.

Comerford said, “The people of Western Massachusetts built a movement that pushed east.”

Then she added, “Peace by the sword and the subjugation of Native Americans is not the peace I represent. I want something that calls us to an acknowledgement of our common humanity, that affects all of us in a beautiful and positive way.”

Sen Nick Collins, of Boston, led the opposition to the amendment. He said he favored simply removing the sword, without having to replace all the flags flying across the state, perhaps forgetting that the sword is pictured not only on the seal, but on the flag as well.

Collins said he thought the Latin motto allowed “language access” to the current seal for all the people of the Commonwealth who share common roots in the Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Portuguese. He said an Indigenous language was also present on our seal, in the word “Massachusetts,” which he said meant Great Blue Hills. He noted that the special commission, on which he served in its final months, had surveyed more than 10,000 residents of Massachusetts on their choices for themes for a new motto. The word “Peace” was the top pick. Collins suggested that the word Peace was already contained in the current Latin motto: “She seeks a Quiet Peace… under the Sword….”

A fire alarm went off causing the entire Senate chamber to evacuate for half an hour. With the midnight hour approaching, debate resumed and the roll was called.

Eight senators (Michael Brady, John Cronin, Peter Durant, Ryan Fattman, Edward Kennedy, Michael Moore, Patrick O’Connor, and John Velis) joined Collins in voting no. The amendment carried with the support of the minority leader, Sen Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, who joined 29 Democrats in the affirmative.