Commission to redesign Massachusetts flag begins work

July 30, 2021

Members of a new commission tasked with revisiting the state’s seal and motto and creating a new Massachusetts flag appeared to be in early agreement on at least one point at their first meeting July 1 — they’ll need more time beyond their October deadline.

A resolve passed in January created the panel to investigate the state’s seal and motto, “including those features that may be unwittingly harmful to or misunderstood by the citizens of the commonwealth,” and make sure its elements reflect the “commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”

It gave the 19-member commission until Oct. 1, 2021 to submit recommendations for a new or revised seal and motto.

“We are starting, really, an important conversation on the seal and the motto of Massachusetts,” Rep. Antonio Cabral, the co-chair of the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee, said. “It will not be an easy conversation sometimes. It will be difficult and at times uncomfortable, because confronting history and breaking down mythologies always is, right. It will be important that we must get it right.”

The Massachusetts seal, which is featured on the state flag and many official documents, depicts a Native American standing beneath a disembodied arm wielding a sword and the Latin motto, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

Advocates have been pressing for years to reexamine the seal, arguing that its imagery is hostile and perpetuates stereotypes. Bills to create such a commission were first filed in the 1980s.

Melissa Ferretti, president and chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag tribe, said the exercise could also help educate the public about the history and contemporary existence of tribal nations in Massachusetts.

“This is an opportunity for the commonwealth and all of you here and anyone that’s paying attention to get to know some of these other communities that have been sort of removed from this narrative all these many years,” she said. “I see this as a good opportunity to educate the commonwealth on the Herring Pond tribe, the Nipmuc people and some of these other communities that are still here and…give them a space in the narrative.”

Arlington Representative Sean Garballey said that there has been momentum to change the flag locally for decades. 

“For a long time many people, myself included, have felt that the flag perpetuated violence and was an inaccurate depiction of Native Americans,” Garballey said. “Many states have great designs, Massachusetts is not one of them. We have an incredible amount of history in our state and its time we have a flag that accurately reflects that.”

Along with lawmakers and representatives “who are lineal descendants of tribes with a historical presence in the commonwealth,” the resolve also called for commission members with “relevant cultural and historical expertise.”

Secretary of State William Galvin’s designee is Michael Comeau, executive director of the state archives. One of Baker’s appointees is Micah Whitson, the chief creative officer at Athenahealth, who was involved in the redesign of Mississippi’s state flag.

Whitson said that in the Mississippi effort, a tight timeline — necessary to get the new flag proposal before voters on that state’s ballot — served as a “really valuable forcing function” to help get work finished.

Though the COVID-19 state of emergency in Massachusetts has been over for more than a month, the State House remains closed to the public. Multiple commission members expressed interest in holding in-person meetings, which Cabral said he did not think would be feasible until September or early October, depending on the timing of the capitol’s eventual reopening.

The New Bedford Democrat said the logistical hurdles around in-person meetings make the October deadline “unrealistic.” He said there are other structural issues the commission needs to resolve, including questions around staff and resources. The members are also waiting to pick their chair until all appointees have been named.

Cabral said he’d return to the commission with some suggested language to extend the timeline beyond the current Oct. 1 deadline.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the State Administration Committee’s Senate chair, suggested that he, Cabral and Vieira could reach out to legislative leaders “to see if there might be a vehicle that we could add an appropriate amendment to make sure we extend the time.”

It was not clear from the discussion how much additional time the body might seek to complete its work.

The resolve that created the commission stipulated that members must be appointed within 60 days of its effective date, and allows the commission to grant itself an extension by adopting a motion on a two-thirds vote.