Right Whales And Cranberries: The People Weigh In On A New Mass. State Seal

Photo: Getty Images

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — At long last, the Special Commission tasked with cooking up a new Massachusetts state seal and motto is almost finished with its work. Their recommendations are due on Nov. 15. But ahead of the final report due to state lawmakers, the commission sent around a survey to see what the public wanted on a new seal and motto.

A Troubled Look

The current state seal appears everywhere from the flag, to state police cruisers, to every sheet of official letterhead. It's the foremost symbol of the commonwealth. But activists have taken issue with the symbolism on the seal itself. It depicts a Native American man holding a bow on a royal blue background, with tensed arm swinging a sword above.

Brian Boyles of Mass Humanities co-chairs the commission.

"For many years, indigenous activists as well as other activists have pointed to the crest, which is the sword in the seal, as being particularly offensive," he said. "As you dig deeper into...the long history of Massachusetts from the colonial times to the present and the relationship with indigenous people, you can see why it's very complicated to have that person on the seal.”

The current state seal was last updated in 1898, and native activists have long considered it problematic. The indigenous man that takes center stage on the seal isn’t even based on someone from Massachusetts: it was a composite facsimile of an Ojibwa chief, Little Shell.

John “Jim” Peters Jr., the state Executive Director of Indian Affairs, told a spring meeting of the seal commission that his father had worked for decades to get it changed.

“The seal of the commonwealth is meant to reflect all of the state, and that includes the indigenous history of the state and it also includes everything else that has happened since the invasion of Europeans to this place,” said Elizabeth Solomon, representing the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag. “It is not just an issue of whether this is harmful to indigenous people. It is also an issue of how the state is representing itself to itself and the larger world.”

“We want to be able to use our shared history as a teaching moment for all of the constituents and all of the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah. “What is it that the people of Massachusetts want to be known for? How is it that we want that knowledge to be represented in the imagery that we want to put forward.”

The Special Commission to review and recommend changes to the Massachusetts State Seal and Motto was formed by former Governor Charlie Baker in 2021. The commission recommended creating a new seal in May. After its efforts dragged on for two years, it will submit its final report on Wednesday.

A Look At What The People Want

In an effort to get a full picture of where to go with the seal, the commission decided to survey the general Massachusetts population on what they wanted. The survey by the UMass Boston Center for Survey Research went out in August and gathered well over 10,000 responses. The commission shared those results with WBZ NewsRadio.

The polling center decided to split up its polling into two separate surveys: an online poll with no control over the respondents, and a more tightly controlled mail-in poll which was designed to be representative of everyone in Massachusetts. Many more people (about 10,000) responded to the online poll, while the mail poll got about 350 responses.

Among the online poll responders, the top choice for imagery on the seal was a right whale. That was closely followed by an image of the coast or shoreline, and cranberries.

A black capped chickadee, a mayflower, a cod fish, and the profile shape of Massachusetts rounded out the best-liked options.

Interestingly, more than half of the native respondents to the poll strongly preferred keeping the figure of an indigenous person on the seal. Boyles says those responses will be taken into consideration.

Most online respondents wanted a reimagined motto to include the words "Peace," "Equality,' and "Common Good."

The results were similar for the representative survey, with the outline of Massachusetts coming in first, then an image of the coast, and a right whale rounding out the top three. "Peace," "Liberty," and "Equality,' were their top picks for words to include in the motto.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The commission itself has no power to officially make a new seal. Boyles says the plan all along was to tell lawmakers on Beacon Hill whether the seal and motto should be changed, and give them options on new ones.

Boyles estimates the commission has spent about $84,000 on the project. Despite a missed deadline, Boyles is proud of the work the panel has done. He said it took delving into many hundreds of years of history.

"Because the seal and the motto are visible symbols all over the Commonwealth, we believed we needed to be deliberative about this and strive for conversations which were informed and that respected the perspectives of all the people involved," he said.

Now, it will be up to state lawmakers to agree on a final design — if they want a new seal at all.

WBZ NewsRadio's Chaiel Schaffel (@CSchaffelWBZ) reports:

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