A state commission created nearly three years ago to recommend changes to Massachusetts’ controversial state seal and motto is disbanding without offering specific substitutes for either, saying that a new body should be created to “carry forward’’ its work.
The 20-person panel was created by the Legislature in January 2021 to consider changes to a state seal long criticized as offensive to Native Americans. The 19th-century emblem depicts a colonist’s arm holding a sword above the image of a Native American, and is draped by a Latin motto that roughly translates to: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.’’
The group said in a report it submitted to lawmakers Wednesday that a working group under the secretary of state should be tasked with creating a new seal and motto — and by extension, the state flag that currently features both. That includes tackling the “important choice’’ of how to properly represent Native Americans should the current seal be scrapped, the commission wrote.
The report caps what’s been a years-long and divisive process for overhauling the seal that is splashed across Massachusetts state buildings, letterhead, and the state flag.
The commission had already said it believes the state should move on, voting in the spring of 2022 to recommend replacing the state’s motto and seal.
In its report Wednesday, it said a new seal and motto should include symbols that are “aspirational and inclusive of the diverse perspectives, histories, and experiences of Massachusetts residents.’’ But it did not offer specific designs of what those should be.
It instead provided a variety of suggestions, including different flora such as an elm tree or cranberries; a chickadee or cod; or geographic features, including the ocean, coastline, or simply the state’s shape. “Appropriate’’ terms for the motto, the group wrote, could be “hope,’’ “for the common good,’’ or names of Massachusetts tribal nations.
GBH first reported the commission’s final recommendations.
The debate over how to actually create a new seal and motto was often complex. The commission noted that members were split on whether a Native American figure should be included at all, with some Indigenous members saying the visual representation could “prevent additional erasure of their communities.’’ Others, meanwhile, argued that the depiction of any human figure, regardless of their background, could be “inherently exclusive.’’
The group also noted that a majority of Native American respondents to a public survey indicated that they prefer keeping a Native American figure on the seal.
“This challenge will need to be addressed in the final design of a state seal and motto, and the Legislature should ensure Native representation in that process,’’ the report reads.
But what those next steps the Legislature could take are unclear. One of those to vote against the final version was Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s committee on state administration and regulatory oversight — through which any proposed changes to the seal would flow.
State Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat and Collins’s cochair on the state administration committee, said the group “deserves a lot of credit’’ for the work it had done on a complicated issue.
“I know it’s an issue that can be touchy, it can be sensitive, and I think was handled quite well without really offending anybody,’’ Cabral said at the group’s final meeting Tuesday.
Others flatly disagreed. Jim Wallace, a commission member and the executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, called the commission a “colossal failure’’ that was regularly bogged down by lengthy discussions about the history of the current seal and circular arguments about what could, or could not, replace it.
“Honestly, it was the worst working group that I have ever dealt with in my career,’’ Wallace, a longtime lobbyist, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They were so worried about potentially hurting somebody’s feelings that they went out of their way to make sure everybody got a say on everything in a one-hour meeting, which then shut it down.’’
Melissa Ferretti, chairwoman and president of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe and a commission member, said the dialogue at times swerved toward recommending to “just remove the sword and call it day,’’ and that even with repeated extensions, the commission could have benefitted from more time to meet its legal mandate to “make recommendations for a revised or new design’’ for the seal and motto.
Asked whether she believes the group accomplished its charge, Ferretti was torn.
“Yes and no,’’ she said. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who’s in charge, who’s doing what, how does this look. We did accomplish what we set out to do with the time allowed. But I hope moving forward that we’re still part of this decision-making. Obviously we’re not legislators. Ultimately those are the powers that be.’’
Designed by illustrator Edmund Garrett in 1898, the current seal draws on the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which featured a Native American man, naked but for some shrubbery about his groin, saying, “Come over and help us.’’
The sword depicted in the seal once belonged to Myles Standish, a 17th-century military commander for the Plymouth Colony known for his brutality toward the Indigenous population.
The panel’s efforts — and origins — have spanned years. Former state Representative Byron Rushing first pushed legislation in the 1980s to create a commission to examine the state seal, only for it to repeatedly die in the Democratic-led Legislature.
The effort finally gained momentum in the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd spurred a nationwide reckoning of racial injustice and, by extension, racist symbols. Protesters around the country toppled Confederate statues and pushed for the removal of other emblems and imagery. That included a renewed and often contentious debate about the use Native American imagery in sport and school logos, including in Massachusetts schools.
The state commission originally faced an October 2021 deadline to produce recommendations, which it missed amid a series of logistical hurdles and questions over its mission. The Legislature then gave it three separate extensions — and $100,000 in funding — ultimately setting a Wednesday deadline for it to produce its recommendations.
The Legislature ultimately would have to approve any changes to the seal, motto, and flag.
State Senator Jason M. Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who sponsored the resolution creating the commission, said the panel “moved the ball down the field’’ but acknowledged it’s not yet clear what the Legislature will do next.
“This has been a long journey and we need to remain determined and committed to see the work all the way across the finish line,’’ he said.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @mattpstout.