It’s time to scrap the state seal

Image is an embarrassment to the state

THIS SEPTEMBER will mark 400 years since the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, altering the course of European history, as well as that of indigenous peoples who had lived here for thousands of years already.

Nine years after that landing, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was granted its charter and established its first seal – an image of a Native American, with an arrow facing down, and the words “Come over and help us” surrounding it.

Nearly four centuries later, we have survived and grown through wars, Civil Rights movements, and an increasing awareness of the importance of words and symbols. Yet our coat of arms, seal, and state flag feature a linear descendent of that same image.

This week, the House and Senate are expected to take action on a bill that would establish a five-member commission, chaired by the executive director of the Commission on Indian Affairs, to make recommendations regarding a new design for our coat of arms, seal, and motto. Related legislation to change the seal has been filed for at least four decades with no action; several communities in Massachusetts have voted on resolutions condemning the current imagery and motto.

We think legislative action is decades overdue, and that there is no better moment than right now for the state to act. The state coat of arms, seal, and motto aren’t just anachronistic, they are embarrassments to a Commonwealth that should be leading the way on matters of equity, inclusion, and forward-thinking.

We have led the nation on matters of education, public health and healthcare, marriage equality, climate change, and equity. So why are we diminishing those efforts with an image that speaks to cultural values centuries out of date?

The most charitable explanation of our seal is that it represents the sword of a minuteman, signifying the American Revolution, hanging over the head of a Native American with an unstrung bow, and a downward facing arrow, representing “peace.”

But that “peace” pose can also be interpreted as “surrender,” and the sword in the coat of arms version of the image (the seal is a simplified execution of the same theme) is widely accepted to be a copy of Myles Standish’s personal sword. Standish, the first commander of the Plymouth Colony militia, was known for stunning brutality against Indians.

Whatever your interpretation, it is a boastfully ethnocentric image that shouts a message of domination to every Native American, immigrant, person of color, or other resident who walks into any state building, particularly the State House.

Changing the seal isn’t about erasing history. On the contrary, this is about recognizing history itself, and representing the history of a diverse state in an inclusive manner. This is a small gesture about recognizing the true breadth of experience in our history, even if we will never right wrongs.

In marketing and branding, we use words, symbols, and images to represent the values of an organization. Ultimately, Massachusetts represents the spirit of America – a beacon to the rest of the country that strives to lead on vital issues. But in 2020, the overt symbolism we are using detracts and distracts from important work that Gov. Charlie Baker, the Legislature, and public servants are doing across the board and across the state to lead the nation on matters of social and economic importance.

How can we be a welcoming state to immigrants with such an image flying over Logan International Airport and citizenship ceremonies? How can we provide the services to lead on issues of equity? Or healthcare? Or criminal justice? Or climate change?

It’s way past time that we look inward and ask, critically, “Do the symbols and words we use speak to our values as a state and as a community?

 To us, the answer is clear. For our indigenous neighbors, for those immigrating here, for those who work in the State House or have business with the Commonwealth, for all of us, the image of that sword hanging over the head of another in surrender is not who we aim to be as a Commonwealth.

Meet the Author

Lucas Guerra

Founder and CEO, thinkargus
Meet the Author

Scott Zoback

Direct of communications strategy, thinkargus
We deserve better than this because we are better than this.

Lucas Guerra is the founder and CEO of thinkargus, a branding and communications agency in Boston. Scott Zoback is the director of communications strategy at ThinkArgus, and is a former deputy chief of staff for the Senate president.