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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

If Minnesota can redesign a problematic state seal in 3 months, why can’t Massachusetts?

We’ve spent more than two years on a similar process. You won’t believe what we got out of it.

Images from Adobe Stock; Globe staff illustration

Massachusetts has a problem with its official seal, which most people couldn’t pick out of a lineup, but that’s not the issue. It’s the imagery on it — problematic at best, offensive at worst. Three years ago the Legislature created a commission, approved by then-Governor Charlie Baker, to make recommendations for changing what hasn’t been changed since 1898. The first meeting was in July 2021. And then, last November, the commission released its 179-page final report.

I’ll save you the trouble and summarize it: We think it should be changed but we don’t have any specific ideas. Maybe put on some flora or a bird. See ya.

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I’m paraphrasing a lot, but we’re where we started, with a seal showing a Native American man wearing buckskins and holding a bow and arrow, feathers in his hair. Above him, a single arm bent at the elbow holds a sword pointing downward at him. It’s not the best look to put on buildings, proclamations, anything the state wants to make look official. Oh, and it’s also on the flag.

It should be changed if only for its offensiveness to Native Americans, but I’ll add another. It’s a boring depiction — no bright colors, no action. You know who has a better seal? Every other state. There are ones with sunrises and green fields. Florida has a palm tree. Indiana has a buffalo jumping over a log. Montana has snowcapped mountains and a waterfall.

In Massachusetts, there are trees with world-class foliage. We get snow. We have mountains, sort of. There’s probably a waterfall somewhere. We could easily do something better. We need to do something better, but I get that change is hard. A bad identity is still an identity and finding something to reflect how awesomely wicked pissah we are might be too monstrous a task for mortals to divine.

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But really, two and a half years to come up with nothing? For a people that love to self-describe as tough, innovative, and stubborn in the face of lost causes, it’s not résumé stuff to be defeated by a seal.

I’ll give it a shot. How about:

  • An abandoned couch, as a nod to all the college students that come and go.
  • A sea gull with a french fry in its mouth — suggested by my 12-year-old son — to which I see little downside. The gull is way more identifiable than the chickadee (our state bird), and who ever said, “french fries? Eww, gross.”
  • A rotary with gridlock going in eight directions. You can add in the sea gull, which would be about to make a deposit on an unsuspecting Wrangler.

That’s three pretty genius ideas in under three minutes with zero cringe.

We’re good?

Not quite. However brilliant I may be, this is the state seal. The people should decide. If only there were a blueprint to follow. If only . . . If only . . .

Oh, wait. There is. Minnesota had the same problem. Its seal had a white guy farmer with a plow in a field and a Native American leaving on a horse. The Manifest Destiny message was pretty clear: “Get off my land . . . that was your land not that long ago.”

That state’s Legislature created a commission, signed into law by the governor, with the directive of finding a new design and doing it by January 1, 2024. The commission had its first meeting last September. It made its unanimous selection December 12; its final report, all 35 pages, came out on New Year’s Day, describing the new seal with a loon (state bird), wild rice (official grain), Norway pine (you can guess), the North Star, and state motto.

How did Minnesota pull it off in three months? One reason might be that the commission decided not to take on the job of designing. Instead, members had residents submit ideas — 399 in total — and the commission voted. As the commission chair, Luis Fitch, says, the winner became evident.

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Another was the clear objective: Change the seal. Do it by this date. Harvard’s Joseph P. Gone, professor of anthropology and of global health and social medicine, and faculty director of its Native American Program, is an enrolled member of the Aaniiih-Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana. He says if there’s a next time, it would be smart to borrow from Minnesota. A tight deadline would eliminate needless meetings and making it into a contest would bring in better ideas than content-by-committee ever has. “Most of us aren’t that creative,” he says.

So, will there be a next time? That’s iffy. The process is in a pause, says Northampton state Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, one of the legislation’s sponsors. Maybe Governor Maura Healey could goose things by forming a new commission or special panel. (Hint, hint.) If she pushed, and the winning idea came from the people, Sabadosa says, that might give the Legislature the needed cover to change the law, which is required for there to be a new seal.

Hopefully somebody realizes this is a low-hanging-fruit moment and steps up. Sure, the first attempt produced a big bagel, but that embarrassment shouldn’t cause us to quit. We’re gritty folks who love a good comeback. This is a chance for a do-over, to revamp our image, to not look so awful, and mostly to learn from our mistakes, because learning, that’s so one of our things.

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The abandoned couch, remember?


Steve Calechman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.