BOSTON — The imagery on Massachusetts' state flag features a coat of arms designed nearly 240 years ago. While modified through the years, it still features a Native American clutching a bow and arrow, with an arm above him holding a broadsword.
Below is a motto, "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem," which translates roughly from Latin to, "By the sword we seek peace, but peace under liberty."
The logo is used virtually everywhere in state government from Statehouse offices to state police cruisers to the governor's letterhead. Native American tribes say it is a symbol of the brutal suppression of the region's original inhabitants — the Wampanoag, Massachusett and Nipmuc — by Colonial governments that, like Confederate monuments in the South, should be removed.
Native American groups have been prodding Beacon Hill leaders for decades to change the seal and flag, or at least debate the issue, with little progress. Despite that, state lawmakers are again considering a proposal that would create a commission to come up with recommended changes.
"We're not saying we're going to change anything or rip it apart," said Rep. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, one of 30 co-sponsors of the House bill. "We're just going to look at it."
Minicucci said she personally isn't sure if the seal and flag should be changed, but she hopes a commission would consider multiple views and come up with a solution fair to everyone.
"Hopefully, we can figure out something that maintains our history but keeps up with the times and is current with what the face of Massachusetts looks like now," she said.
Public debate over the flag was revived following a controversial vote in May by the Cambridge City Council to remove it from its City Hall chambers. Several council members described the flag as "offensive" and said they are looking into removing it from other public places in the state's fifth-largest city.
Dozens of other communities have adopted symbolic resolutions in support of proposals to change the flag as part of a strategy pressuring Beacon Hill to take up the legislation. Some communities are considering changes to town flags with similar imagery.
A group called Change the Massachusetts Flag has been encouraging the resolutions asking lawmakers to act.
"Massachusetts has kept a sword hanging over the heads of Native Americans for hundreds of years," the group says on its website. "That’s a terrible symbol for our state."
The movement mirrors campaigns to remove Native American mascots and imagery used by public schools and sports teams — which have also gained little traction on Beacon Hill.
Native Americans protest the use of mascots such as "Redskins" and "Sachems" as derogatory, while communities defend them as a celebration, not disparagement, of native culture bound in local tradition.
Several states have banned the use of Native American mascots but in Massachusetts, state leaders have been reluctant to get involved — instead leaving decisions to local leaders.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said he is encouraged by the increasing awareness among state and local officials that the flag contains symbols Native Americans find offensive.
"Much like the nationwide effort to change team mascots, logos and even Halloween costumes, education is critical," he said in a statement. "A better understanding of the culture and ceremonial meaning behind certain artifacts and regalia, I would hope, will go a long way for the general public to better understand the offenses toward native people."
Cromwell said the tribe supports the creation of a commission that will "serve in a balanced fashion, to revise and re-energize as well as recognize all indigenous peoples."
"By the state taking this approach, it is an opportunity to right yet another wrong and include the input of the indigenous people, historical experts, artists and the like, with thought and sensitivity in order for the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is truly be representative," he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.