At Cambridge City Hall, a push for the redesign of Mass. state flag

The flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, depicting a Native American under an arm holding a sword, hangs in front of the State House. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Every time Shelly Lowe’s daughter went to Cambridge City Hall as part of a leadership program, the sight of the Native American under a sword on the Massachusetts state flag made the eighth-grader uncomfortable.

“She was coming to City Hall on a weekly basis, and she described to her mother how difficult it was to be in sessions where she was confronted with the flag, and, in her mind, it really made her not want to be in City Hall seeing the flag,” said Cambridge Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, Lowe’s next-door neighbor.

The flag, under fire for decades, depicts a Native American holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other, while an arm brandishes a sword above him. The motto, written in Latin, says “By the sword we seek peace, but peace under liberty.”

There has been an ongoing effort to change the flag, but now Devereux and city officials are taking a stand. City councilors voted last month to support a bill in the State House that proposes creating a commission to redesign the flag, which Native Americans and others say is offensive.

And councilors took their stance one step further: They asked the mayor to remove the flag from City Hall’s chamber.

“What I have been told, not from our solicitor, is that it has to be displayed in City Hall — it does not say where,” said Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern. “So it is quite possible that we will move it from the chamber and put it somewhere else in City Hall.”

Lowe, the executive director of Harvard University’s Native American Program, said moving the flag in City Hall is just a start.

“We welcome indigenous students from across the world and especially students from this country, where they will live for one to four years, and it is very difficult to welcome them here to this place and to have them confronted with the state flag and state seal,” said Lowe, who is of Navajo descent.

“Students look up ‘what does it mean?’ and write down the symbolism — it makes the university and city itself not as welcoming as I think they would hope.”

Devereux said she had not paid attention to the flag’s presence, or considered the negative impact it would have on indigenous communities, until she heard Lowe deliver an emotional speech about the flag during a public forum.

Not everybody is happy about the proposed change. MA 4 Trump founder and Roxbury native Dianna Ploss said the movement to eradicate history is bad for the nation.

“This is another step to destroy my history and is moving us closer to communism,” Ploss, 55, said. “It’s another step toward erasing our history — we’re trying to equalize everybody, we’re trying to get rid of the middle class.”

She said changing the flag does not change history and will only make people forget about what happened in the past, causing us to repeat it again.

But Cedric Cromwell, tribal council chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, said in a statement the tribe is unhappy about the inaccuracies depicted in the state seal and extremely supportive of redesigning the flag.

“A better understanding of the culture and ceremonial meaning behind certain artifacts and regalia, I would hope, will go a long way for the general public to better understand the offenses toward native people, including the troubling sword-wielding arm above the figure that currently exists on the state flag and a number of local municipal flags throughout the Commonwealth.”

Cromwell said creating a commission for redesigning the flag is an opportunity “to right yet another wrong” — the flag being one of many mischaracterizations of indigenous people. He said reviewing and revising flags at a grass-roots level (like Cambridge) is refreshing and a positive change.

Diamond Naga Siu can be reaced at Follow her on Twitter @diamondnagasiu

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