CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing approaches next year, there is a growing push to change the Massachusetts state flag because of its depiction of a Native American.
At least 30 municipalities have endorsed a state bill to remove and replace the state’s flag and motto. Cambridge, the fifth largest city in the state, went even further — earlier this month city council members labeled it “offensive” and approved a proposal to remove the state flag from council chambers.
“I found out that there is a lot of imagery on the state flag that I didn’t actually know existed,” said Massachusetts State Rep. Nika Elugardo, who is co-sponsoring the state resolution to replace the flag.
The flag features a Native American holding a bow and arrow. Just overhead is a disembodied arm with a sword. Surrounding the seal is the phrase “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” which roughly translates from Latin to, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Jean-Luc Pierite of the North American Indian Center of Boston said for indigenous people, the imagery harkens back to images of a painful past.
“Our community members are definitely aware of the imagery,” Pierite said in an interview last month. “It’s read a certain way among Native Americans than it would be for the general population.”
The Native figure on the seal is said to represent the Wampanoag tribe leader Ousamequin, who signed the first treaty between the tribe and the pilgrims in 1621, part of what is celebrated on the Thanksgiving holiday.
Most objections aren’t with Ousamequin, but the arm and sword overhead. They are said to belong to Myles Standish, an English military officer who helped establish and secure the Plymouth colony.
“He represents the death of native people,” Hartman Deetz, a member of the Wampanoag tribe said in an interview with WGBH. “He represents the threat of the sword, the threat of arms to enforce the will and the place of colonists here to be able to take from us our land and our home.”
Standish, Deetz said, terrorized the state’s natives after luring a man into his home for a trade deal and then killing him.
That’s why Rep. Elugardo wants it gone.
“For many people across the Commonwealth and beyond in this region, that sword represents that story,” Elugardo said. “Really, it is part of our story and part of our history, but not to be celebrated, to be remembered and to honor the dead.”
But the push is facing some backlash from people who feel it’s political correctness gone too far.
“They keep changing things because people are uncomfortable,” said Karen Penrose, who works in Cambridge. “People are always uncomfortable with something. You can’t keep changing the world because of what people are thinking all the time.”
Some also questioned the timing of the proposal.
“Why? I don’t see anything wrong with (the flag) and from my office, I see it every day. I think they need to leave things alone and find something else better to do, something constructive to do. There are better things that need to be done. After all these years, why do that now?” Joyce Stanton, a state employee, told the Boston Herald.
Elugardo’s resolution in its current form would call for a commission to be formed to come up with a new flag and motto.
“It will bring Indigenous communities and many others across the commonwealth to determine what type of flag and seal would really best represent the values of Massachusetts that we all cherish and share,” Elugardo said.
The bill is awaiting a hearing before it can move forward in the Massachusetts state legislature.
“They’re the true natives of this country,” said resident Ron Williams. “And they need to do something that doesn’t feel like they’re being disrespected as a nation.”
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