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Newton may reconsider city seal over its depiction of Native Americans

The city of Newton is reconsidering the imagery of its official seal, which now depicts a white preacher converting Native Americans to Christianity.
The city of Newton is reconsidering the imagery of its official seal, which now depicts a white preacher converting Native Americans to Christianity.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As communities across the state drop Native American imagery from team mascots, Newton’s mayor wants to rethink the city’s longstanding official seal because of its depiction of a white man standing over indigenous people.

The seal depicts the moment when a group of Massachusett tribe members, including leader Waban, listened to a sermon by English missionary John Eliot in 1646.

But the logo -- which also features the slogan “Liberty and Union” -- is deceiving because those words were never meant for the Massachusett, said Faries Gray, sagamore of the tribe.

"The truth is that Newton exists because of the relocation of the Massachusett," Gray said. "This was a difficult time for my people. To think that these actions are celebrated with a seal is disturbing."

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Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who said she began rethinking the city’s seal more than a year ago, has been weighing whether the image represents the city’s current identity, spirit, and values. Newton leaders approved the seal in 1865, and it has been in use ever since.

That review comes as communities rethink the use of Native American imagery in logos and mascots -- critics have called the symbols racist characterizations. It also comes amid a broader discussion about systemic racism, with Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place around the country and in Newton.

“I think many of us are taking a critical look at expressions of white supremacy and systemic racism across the city,” Fuller said in an interview. “The scene on our seal understandably is painful for Native Americans and their allies.”

When Eliot sermonized to members of the Massachusett tribe on top of Nonantum Hill in present day Newton Corner, he spoke in their language in an effort to convert them to Christianity, according to a 2019 city history about the seal. Eliot later helped establish so-called “Praying Indian” communities throughout the region, according to the account.

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While the image depicts a 17th-century event, it really represents the thinking of the 19th-century white men who chose it for Newton’s official seal, said Lisa Dady, the executive director of Historic Newton.

At the time, community leaders across the state were working to craft a national identity apart from Great Britain, she said. And in many cities and towns, images of Native Americans were used for the official municipal seals.

“White people are looking back at their history, and they’re simultaneously thinking of Native Americans in a very romantic way... but also in a way that is disrespectful,” Dady said in an interview.

Now the city is mounting an effort to peel back centuries of attitudes around religion, race, and colonialism wrapped up in its official seal.

Fuller has asked residents to volunteer for a special Ad Hoc City Seal Working Group that will study the flag and come up with recommendations for what to do with the image. A City Council vote is needed for any changes.

“It does show Eliot in a position of authority, and simultaneously shows a conversion scene,” Fuller said. “It leads to uncomfortable questions about one culture civilizing another one in a way that I don’t think reflects the values of Newton.”

She hopes the city working group will complete its work by year’s end, she said. As part of the effort, Fuller said she will reach out to Gray, with the Massachusett.

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Gray said his people were stripped of their homeland and spirituality, and that the conversion to Christianity is not something that Native Americans celebrate. When Newton’s seal was adopted, in fact, there were laws that worked against them.

Conversion to Christianity was not voluntary, he said, and Massachusett were forced to assimilate quickly as disease decimated their population.

“Our freedom was taken away so the colonists could have their freedom. We were once a free people. That all changed with the arrival of the colonists,” Gray said in an e-mail. “None of what was just mentioned has ever been addressed by towns/cities who boast indigenous on their seal.”

In Newton’s seal, Eliot stands with Waban and a group of Massachusett people -- Eliot is gesturing as if to make a point. Two indigenous people sit at Eliot’s feet, a third leans against a tree. They are all men.

The seal suggests more Massachusett people are nearby, but they are drawn only as an indistinct mass, with feathers over their heads to indicate their identities.

The seal is part of Newton’s everyday landscape: It appears on vehicles, stationery, public records, flags, public buildings, and the city website. Residents who go to City Hall may have to cross a large version built into the stone floor.

Residents even face the seal every time they cast a vote in municipal elections: The image is featured on local ballots, including a vote earlier this year on a development project.

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Melissa Harding Ferretti, chairwoman and president of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, also criticized the imagery of the Newton city seal in an e-mail.

She has been publicly opposed to the use of Native American imagery as mascots for sports teams and on the Massachusetts state seal.

Her community does “not see it as ‘harmless,’ and certainly not as ‘respectful’ to us or to our ancestors,” she said of Newton’s seal. “Nor does it enlighten the broader public about our true histories as indigenous peoples. We did not submit to being colonized.”

Fuller said it’s important to have a public discussion about how to best represent what the community stands for.

“Let’s make sure in our actions and deed, as well as our words and symbols, that we consistently portray the identity, spirit, and values of Newton,” Fuller said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.