A move to redesign the Massachusetts state flag arrived at an interesting time.
Newspapers and social media feeds have been inundated with photos of flags and all their complicated symbolism. Rioters waved Confederate and American flags as they stormed the US capitol last week. Some used flagpoles to beat a police officer to the ground. Others wore imagery borrowed from flags on their clothing or painted across their bodies.
On Jan. 5, just one day before the insurrection, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to form a commission to study and recommend permanent changes to the state seal and motto. Governor Charlie Baker signed the measure on Monday.
The 19th-century seal, which appears in the center of the state flag, depicts a colonist’s arm holding a sword above the image of an Algonquian warrior. Circling the man’s figure is a Latin motto that translates, roughly, as: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace under liberty.”
But the flag symbolizes anything but peace, said Elizabeth Solomon, an enrolled member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag. The sword represents the swinging arm of Myles Standish, a British military officer hired by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, who killed hundreds of Native people in the area around Massachusetts. The Algonquian warrior, on the other hand, has his arrow pointed to the ground in submission, as Solomon pointed out.
“The flag memorializes the slaughter and attempted genocide of the multiple Native peoples in Massachusetts,” she said via Zoom this week.
Not everybody believes that redesigning the flag would lead to lasting change. For one, previous moves to change the flag were practically ignored in the State House for more than 30 years. Former state representative Byron Rushing, who long represented Boston’s South End, was the first to formally introduce the idea in 1985 after Native Americans protested the symbolism and advocated for change. They drafted policies, petitions, talked to politicians. And yet, nothing was done until now.
“It’s upsetting that this has taken so long to pass,” said State Senator Jason Lewis, of Winchester, who co-sponsored the new version of the measure. “I think we just haven’t given enough attention to Indigenous people. We haven’t paid enough attention to their needs, concerns, and voices.”
John Peters Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, agreed with that assessment. His father, the late Wampanoag leader John Peters Sr. — whose traditional name was Slow Turtle — was director of the commission for nearly 20 years before he took over. When the commission’s members spoke up about the flag time and time again, they received little government support, Peters recalled. After being ignored for so many years, he isn’t holding out hope for real change.
“While we change the flag we’d have an opportunity to talk about what’s been done to Indian populations. But after that, I guess the conversation will be over,” Peters said. “Changing the flag doesn’t do much for us, except for maybe getting that sword [out from] over the top of our head.”
But some — including the politicians who sponsored the resolution this session — expressed hope in light of the increased activism and social awareness of 2020. A surge of white interest in the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired critical conversations about race and inequality across the United States. Longstanding symbols of racism have started to fall. In November, Mississippi voters chose to replace their old state flag, which held a canton of the Confederate battle flag, with a depiction of a white magnolia blossom.
“We do have Mississippi as a guide,” said Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, of Northampton, a sponsor of the legislation in the House. “Their new flag seems like something the state kind of rallied behind. People are proud to have that flag. I don’t think Massachusetts has that and I think this gives us an opportunity to do so.”
The year 2020 was also the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Lawmaker Jo Comerford, also of Northampton, who co-sponsored the measure with Lewis in the State Senate, said the occasion should be “an inflection point in the Commonwealth.”
“There is a critical consciousness and a deepened understanding that we have a responsibility to right some historic wrongs,” Comerford said.
So after 34 years of flag legislation sitting practically unnoticed, despite Rushing submitting it to the floor for 17 consecutive sessions, it passed unanimously in the House and Senate this year. Finally, there is hope for momentum.
“Re-examining racist symbols is a very important part of reckoning with our history,” Lewis said.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that changing a symbol can never fix all the hurt it represents.
“The flag should be changed,” Peters said. “But when I think about it, the flag is actually a true depiction of what’s happened to us over these generations — even now. It represents the state. It doesn’t represent us.”
Passing the resolution was just the beginning of the process. As the measure mandates, a special commission will recommend changes and develop educational plans once the new symbol is introduced. The commission is to include 20 people, including five direct descendants of tribes “with a historical presence in the commonwealth.”
“I think it is important for the seal of any state, commonwealth or tribe, to represent history, but also be aspirational,” said Solomon, who may be chosen to join the commission. “We want a flag that expresses where we want to go and what our best selves are.”
And while she doesn’t believe changing the flag will directly improve the way Native Americans are treated in the Commonwealth, she sees plenty of possibilities for positive impact. Children won’t see the flag when they visit the state capitol. Government mail won’t bear the seal. Everyday life gets just a little bit easier. That’s enough for Solomon.
“Symbols are important,” she said, pointing to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. “The fact that this is happening may help some people understand that there are Native people here, there have been Native people here for 10,000 years, and we’re still here, and we’re going to continue to be here and we actually have been and continue to be an essential part of the history of this place.”
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.