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New commission to revise state seal, motto hailed

  • The Massachusetts state flag flies in front of Boston City Hall. AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2021

Following a multiyear campaign, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a resolve this week that will create a commission to recommend a new state seal and motto.

The resolve (S 2848) calls for the panel, after study, to recommend a new or revised seal or motto “to ensure that they faithfully reflect and embody the historic and contemporary commitments of the commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”

The current state seal depicts a Native American figure standing beneath an arm wielding a Colonial-style sword and a Latin motto, which translated means, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” 

According to the resolve, the commission will be made up of people who are descendants of tribes located in Massachusetts, lawmakers and other appointees who have “relevant cultural and historical expertise.” The commission will report its proposals and recommendations no later than Oct. 1.

State lawmakers passed legislation to change the state seal, flag and motto on Jan. 6, and Baker signed the resolve to establish the special commission days later. A version of this legislation was first filed in 1985, and lawmakers have said the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on racial justice issues this past year have helped bring the issue to the forefront.

David Detmold, a Montague resident, has been leading a grassroots effort to change the state seal and flag for years. In an email announcement following the Jan. 6 vote, Detmont wrote “the establishment of a special commission to invite leaders of Native Nations of the region now called Massachusetts to sit with state legislators to design a new state flag and seal, the chance for meaningful dialogue will open.”

“In this time of climate crisis, species collapse and the ongoing degradation of the Earth which sustains us all, the voices and leadership of Native people are urgently needed and earnestly sought,” Detmold wrote.

The bill was first filed in 1985 by former state representative Byron Rushing.

In the spring of 2018, Detmold had considered it a strong step forward when Town Meetings in Gill, New Salem, Orange and Wendell approved resolutions to create a special commission to recommend changes to the seal.

Today, 21 out of 24 cities and towns within state Sen. Jo Comerford’s district passed resolutions calling for the bill’s passage.

On Thursday, Comerford, D-Northampton, said the majority of her district passing these resolutions was “an unmistakable mandate for me as the state senator representing these good folks.”

This legislative session, the bill was sponsored by legislators who pushed for its final passage, including state Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa and Nika Elugardo, and Sen. Jason Lewis and Comerford.

“Native American leaders have made it clear that this bill, this legislation, was a major priority item on the indigenous agenda of the Commonwealth,” Comerford said Thursday. “We need to listen to these leaders as they speak to the civil rights changes that need to happen.”

Comerford said the announcement about the commission’s formation was “thrilling,” in part because this is an issue she has felt drawn to for more than 20 years. She said she first became aware of the issue when she was a new organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that no longer holds a western Massachusetts office. It was at this time that she learned about Rushing and the bill he initiated, and began advocating for it.

“I tuned in and I saw how critical the passage of this bill would be,” Comerford said. “It’s been in my consciousness since that time, or maybe more specifically in my heart.”

She said it has been an honor to get to a position in the state legislature where she could support the bill. She noted that 2020 was the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth.

“This is a Native American-led, people-powered movement,” Comerford said. “Going into 2020, everybody involved in the campaign recognized that if we were ever going to do anything meaningful around the indigenous agenda this was the time.” 

Then, in May, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked calls to civil rights action across the country. Comerford said these movements “helped turbocharge” a number of issues, including the change to the state seal.

“There are many other racial justice issues that we returned to work on this session, and that were left undone but we will go back to,” Comerford said.

“We thank the legislators of Massachusetts for inviting this dialogue with the passage of this resolve,” Detmold wrote in his announcement. “We look forward to the day, coming soon, when children in our schools will learn from the living Native cultures of this land beneath a new state flag and seal, one that truly reflects the ideals of harmony, respect and understanding between all who share the Commonwealth today.”