The Sudbury town meeting voted 139 – 13 on Monday, Oct. 23rd to call for a redesign of the Massachusetts flag and seal, making the community the 78th in Massachusetts to support changing an image that many, including Native American leaders throughout the Commonwealth, have called racist, violent, and degrading.
The vote comes only weeks before a special legislative commission is due to issue final recommendations to the legislature on redesigning the current state symbol, which features a white hand holding a Colonial broadsword over the head of the figure of an Indigenous man, with a Latin motto scrolled beneath, which, according to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website, translates: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
In December of 2022, the 19-member Special Commission on the Seal and Motto called on the legislature to “dedicate more resources to educating the public about the history and cultures of Massachusetts, in particular: the Indigenous history and cultures of Massachusetts, the history and usages of the current seal and motto, and the harm inflicted by the current seal and motto, and the efforts to change the seal and motto.”
Of the 86 communities that have taken up the Change the Flag and Seal issue, only seven (Harwich, Hawley, Monson, North Brookfield, Oakham, Pepperell, and Rowley) have turned it down, while the measure continues to show broad support.
Twenty-four of the 26 towns in Franklin County, for example, have weighed in favorably, and have voted for the change.
Katina Fontes, of Sudbury, who helped gather signatures of local residents on the steps of the public library to place the flag and seal resolution on the October 23rd special town meeting warrant, hailed the outcome of the vote as, “A statement we are making as a community that we reject racist imagery that basically supports white supremacy. The Indigenous community has been lobbying to change this symbol for a long, long time.”
At a January, 2022 meeting of the Special Commission, Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Brian Weeden told his colleagues, “The current seal is a reminder of the oppression of Native Americans, an offensive design of arm and sword over the Native American.”
The issue is not new. For more than 50 years, Indigenous leaders have been calling for the flag and seal of Massachusetts to be changed. The original Massachusetts Bay Colony seal from 1629 depicted an Indigenous person wearing a loincloth of leaves and calling out: “Come over and help us.” He holds one downward arrow and wears no quiver, as a symbol of ‘a peaceful Indian.’
In 1898, the legislature adopted a version by illustrator Edmund Garret that shows among other things, an Indigenous man dominated by a broadsword modeled after the sword of Myles Standish, the Pilgrim military commander known for his ambush and killing of native people. Facial and bodily feature were borrowed from a variety of sources, including a skeleton dug up in Winthrop. It also depicts a red flannel sash said to have been taken from the body of the native warrior Metacomet (King Philip) before his head was impaled on the stockade at Plymouth for 20 years.
According to state Rep. Jack Patrick Lewis of the 7th Middlesex District, the seal “developed at a time when local officials and later the Massachusetts government offered bounties for native scalps, was never intended to honor native peoples as some now retroactively argue.”
Lewis wrote in an editorial in the MetroWest Daily on 9/27/20 that “technical fixes alone are not going to bring about the true racial justice our Commonwealth and country need. But symbols carry great power as visual representations of our strongly held values and beliefs. Doing away with this symbol and the outdated, colonialist ideals it represents is long overdue.”
The Town of Sudbury has a distinct local connection to the current imagery on the flag and seal. As Mass Humanities director Brian Boyles, co-chair of the Special Commission told his colleagues in May of 2022, the Indigenous man depicted on the Massachusetts flag and seal “holds a bow that, according to designer Edmund Garrett, was taken from an unnamed Native man shot by a settler, William Goodnough, in Sudbury, in 1665.”
After the town meeting vote, Sudbury Town Historian Jan Hardenbergh said, “I am very pleased that we voted overwhelmingly in support of changing the Seal of Massachusetts. Sudbury has a rich history, but we are only starting to reckon with our historical and current relationship with the Nipmuc Nation and other indigenous populations. History is messy, but vital to understanding who we are now.”
Towns and cities that have approved resolutions in support of changing the flag and seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts include Acton, Amesbury, Amherst, Arlington, Ashby, Ashfield, Athol, Barre, Becket, Belchertown, Belmont, Bernardston, Bolton, Brewster, Brookfield, Brookline, Buckland, Cambridge, Charlemont, Chatham, Colrain, Conway, Cummington, Deerfield, Dennis, Eastham, Easthampton, Erving, Falmouth, Gill, Goshen, Grafton, Great Barrington, Greenfield, Hadley, Hanson, Harvard, Heath, Ipswich, Lee, Leverett, Leyden, Lincoln, Lunenburg, Merrimac, Montague, Newbury, Newburyport, New Salem, Northampton, Northfield, Orange, Orleans, Pelham, Petersham, Plainfield, Provincetown, Rowe, Royalston, Shelburne, Shutesbury, South Hadley, Stockbridge, Sturbridge, Sunderland, Swampscott, Truro, Warwick, Wellfleet, Wendell, West Brookfield, West Newbury, Westhampton, Whately, Williamsburg, Williamstown, Windsor.
The town council of Southbridge held a vote on a resolution to change the flag and seal of Massachusetts on June 26th of this year which resulted in a tie: 4 to 4, with one member of the council, a strong supporter of changing the flag and seal, absent.