A movement is underway to revise the Massachusetts state flag. Some people find its imagery offensive. And while the flag is seemingly everywhere, it’s easy to overlook.

Even for Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, the flag was somehow hidden in plain sight for years.

“You walk past the state flag a lot,” Sabadosa said. “We go to city council meetings, and it's there. It flies over our town halls. It's even on our little buttons [worn by representatives and senators] here at the State House. But I don't think we spend a lot of time thinking about the symbols and what the messages are.”

It can be hard to decode those messages and symbols with a quick glance at the flag, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the specific images, the artists’ intent, and Latin. But Hartman Deetz, of the Wampanoag Nation, grew up learning all about it.

“My great uncle was one of the first proponents of changing the state flag,” Deetz said. “It was something that I grew up with in my childhood, learning about the symbolism that was involved on that flag and what the different elements meant.”

Flag of Massachusetts
The Massachusetts state flag.
State of Massachusetts State of Massachusetts

The most prominent symbol on the flag is a blue shield with a figure standing in the middle. That figure is the Wampanoag leader Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit Sachem.

“Ousamequin is the person that history remembers as Massasoit, who signed the peace treaty with the English folks in 1621, known as the 1621 agreement,” Deetz said.

“The 1621 agreement,” Deetz said, “is what gave the Plymouth colonists a place to be in this world, by the authority of Wampanoag laws, and what offered the mutual protection between the English and the Wampanoag people so that they would have mutual aid and protection over one another and would respect each other's laws. This is what they often remember in the first Thanksgiving. This is really a part of the history of Massachusetts, but also the myth of America and its founding.”

Deetz is not offended by the image of Ousamequin, but by what surrounds him.

There’s that inscription in Latin: Ense Petit Placidam, Sub Libertate Quietem.

The Latin is a little peculiar grammatically, since it’s actually a fragment of a sentence said, not by a Roman, but by the English soldier, Algernon Sidney. It’s often translated, very freely, as “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty." But a more precise rendering is, “[She] seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty."

However you interpret the motto, there is, on the flag, an actual sword— being held right above the head of Ousamequin.

The disembodied arm holding the sword belongs to Myles Standish. Standish became an American hero for his role in establishing and protecting the Plymouth colony. There’s a massive monument honoring him in Duxbury.

But Standish also terrorized local natives with a brutality the colonists themselves recorded.

Deetz said Standish committed, “one of the first recorded egregious murders of native people by colonists in north America…they document a murder of a man, Pecksuot, just south of Boston. Myles Standish … lured him into a house under the premise that they were going to conduct trade. And when he got into the house, they barred the doors, and he stabbed [Pecksuot] through the heart with his own knife.”

For local native people, seeing Standish’s sword held over Ousamequin is hard to stomach, Deetz said.

“He represents the death of native people,” Deetz said. “He represents the threat of 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.”

Representative Sabadosa -- along with Boston Rep. Nika Elugardo, and State Sen. Jason Lewis -- is trying to restart a long-stalled push to consider changing the flag, taking into account the local native perspective.

“The legislation does not spell out what we want to change the seal and logo to,” Sabadosa said. “It just says that we need to put together a commission really composed of native voices so that we can find a symbol that represents the values of Massachusetts that's true to our history but is also respectful at the same time.”

Sabadosa credits former Rep. Byron Rushing for keeping the issue alive. For decades, Rushing backed changing the flag, but he never got much traction. Sabadosa says Rushing shared his research and work on the issue.

Both Sabadosa and Hartman Deetz think momentum for change is building, thanks in part to intense conversations about race in the Trump era.

“Since we are at a moment where we have the president some days talking about white supremacists as good people, I think that leads people to reflect more on their communities and what are the symbols and emblems that represent us and why do they represent us,” said Sabadosa. “Is that who we want to be as a nation and as a state, and Massachusetts in particular? We hear the campaign rhetoric every season that we are the progressive leader of the nation and does this flag really say that we are the progressive leader? I don't think it does.”

No matter what happens at the statehouse, the movement for change is also taking hold at the local level. Around 50 cities and towns across the commonwealth are considering resolutions to support changing the flag. Representative Sabadosa’s city, Northampton, passed its resolution earlier this month.

While most of her constituents are open to the discussion, Sabadosa has heard from people who want to preserve the history.

“There's sort of a mythology,” she said, “around the seal now where people say, 'Oh, well, you know this is a symbol of our past and we want to make sure that we're respecting our native heritage.' And that is true. We do want to make sure that we're doing that. I'm not sure though that by putting Myles Standish's sword over the head of a native person that we are really doing that.”

Hartman Deetz sees a solution that would preserve the history in the flag—just lose the sword and the inscription, he said.

“If we could just simply change this flag— [change] that sword to a tree, which represents peace. Maybe something about true peace and equality underneath it. We have a whole different meaning to the same symbolism,” he said.

Greater Boston: Should Massachusetts change its state flag?