Does Massachusetts’s Flag Depict Violent Conquest? Should it Be Changed?

A detail of the state seal of Massachusetts, which appears on the state flag.

Does Massachusetts’s Flag Depict Violent Conquest? Should it Be Changed?.

Following the senseless killing of nine African Americans in a Charleston church, the controversy over the Confederate flag that flies outside of South Carolina’s state capitol has again flared up, and it looks like the Stars and Bars’ days are numbered. Retailers including Wal-Mart and Amazon have declared they won’t sell merchandise featuring the flag, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley says it’s time to “move it from the capitol grounds.”

The Confederate flag isn’t a state flag (although it is incorporated into several); it’s the flag of a defunct nation that briefly existed in opposition to the United States.

State flags, though, often tell a story or give a view of history. Flags of two former colonies—those of New York and New Hampshire—depict European ships pulling into unspoiled harbors, which is not an image some Native Americans would consider worth celebrating. (Delaware’s flag has a ship, but no water; Pennsylvania’s has a ship in water, but no land.) Several other flags, including those of Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, and South Dakota, show imagery of westward expansion, including wagon trains, farmers plowing their fields, shovels and pickaxes, barges and riverboats. They’re arguably advertisements for Manifest Destiny, and there’s no mention of the fact that the land these hearty Americans are fighting to tame was taken from Indigenous inhabitants. (Indians on horseback do show up in the background of the seals of Kansas and Minnesota, although in both cases they are riding in a westward direction, which may symbolize the settlers’ driving them off their lands). All of these flags support a historical narrative that European conquest of North America was a just and good thing.

Micah. 4 years old. Ohkay Owingeh/Narragansett/Blackfeet/Chinese

And then there’s the state flag of Massachusetts (above), which prominently depicts an Algonquin Indian holding an arrow with its tip pointed at the ground, indicating peace; above his head is an arm holding a sword. Text in Latin on a banner translates, loosely, to “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

In 2003, flag expert Peter Orenski decided to poll the public on their feelings about the Massachusetts state flag. Here are his results, as documented at tmealf.com/MFS/mfs.htm:

• Among Indians, unfavorable comments outweighed favorable ones by 63:17, or 79% unfavorable.
• Among non-Indians, unfavorable comments surpassed favorable ones by 61:26, or 70% unfavorable.
• Among non-Indian Massachusetts residents the ratio were drastically reversed: favorable comments drowned out unfavorable ones by 14:2, or 88% favorable.
• Among non-U.S. residents, unfavorable comments bested favorable ones by 22:1, or 96% unfavorable.

Orenski catalogues many of the comments in his report, here are a few that stand out:

Native (Comanche/Ponca) respondent: The arm above the Indian holding a saber is that of a non-Indian and seems to depict a vulgar display of dominance over the Indian in the crest. I would hope that the Wampanoag will come up with there own design and not use any part of this crest. If it were changed to a Indian arm holding a hatchet over a Pilgrim, I wonder how non-Indians would feel about that?

Native (Cherokee/Seneca) respondent: The image is confusing. The Indian seems very passive, yet this unidentified raised arm overhead appears to be plunging the sword into the shielded image. It’s extremely hypocritical. History has proven again and again that liberty — defined as the condition of being free from restriction or control and the right to act or believe as one chooses – was NOT given to Natives in this country. In fact, they were stripped of their liberties by the “sword”.

Native (Eastern Band of Cherokee) respondent: Inoffensive image. Dress is accurate for area, doesn’t use usual Western clothing for Eastern tribe.

Native (Mohawk) respondent: The image of the Indian as being subjugated under the white-man’s sword is disturbing to me as a person of Native heritage.

Non-Native respondent: The imagery here, along with the history of the U.S. persecution of Amerindians, leaves a foul taste in my mind when I see this flag. The motto doesn’t help any – it is complicated to understand, and that leads to further discomfort.

Non-Native respondent: I do not feel that it shows anything in a bad light. I feel it is ironic that the Native American is shown with a motto which basically could be used in the defense of the Native American’s fighting off the encroaching whites.

Non-Native respondent: The irony of using a Native American on the arms of the political entity that destroyed them is rather like a hunter hanging trophy heads on his wall. If it is meant to be a sign of respect or ‘inclusiveness’, it is not the best way to do it, and it doesn’t work for me.

Non-Native respondent, Massachusetts resident: I live in Massachusetts and I love our seal and flag. It recognizes the former Indian inhabitants of our great Commonwealth while at the same time paying homage to the importance of a well-armed citizenry by showing the sword.

Non-Native respondent, Massachusetts resident: There is nothing in this symbol that suggests the sword is to be used against the Indian. Indeed, it is a cruel twist to suggest this meaning, as the Indian is standing with the arrow pointing downward, which is a sign of peace. An earlier version of this seal was granted to Massachusetts Bay Colony to symbolize the commercial and missionary intentions of the original colonists. Yes, there were terrible conflicts later between the colonists and the European settlers, but that was in an age where the majority imposed their beliefs on the minority – that’s just the way it was.

Non-US respondent: It’s an outdated “white man’s” image – it cannot represent anything in 2003 [when the survey was conducted]. Liberty for whom? How many Indians are there in Massachusetts?(Jarig Bakker, The Netherlands)

Non-US respondent: The figure, though armed, is not in a hostile attitude. The arm and sword can only be seen as aggressive. The star is neutral. The design, taken with the motto, implies that the “Liberty” is somehow threatened by the Native American. Hence the arm becomes even more aggressive, as if to say that the liberty can only be achieved at the expense of the figure. (Michael Faul, flag expert, U.K.)

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