A special commission charged with reviewing and possibly revamping Massachusetts’ official state seal and motto decided Tuesday to request a third extension to finish that job.
The commission is now asking the Legislature for a deadline of March 31, 2023 to complete its work. The legislation that created the commission originally established a deadline of October 1, 2021 for the body to issue its findings.
“We don’t want to have any more extensions unnecessarily, and I think there’s a lot of people out there waiting to give feedback,” said Brian Boyles, the commission’s co-chair and the executive director of Mass Humanities. “We’re going to get the ball rolling now, I think, with this revised timeline.”
The current iteration of the seal, which dates back to 1898, depicts a Native American holding a bow and arrow and standing beneath a disembodied arm, thought to represent the colonial military leader Myles Standish, which holds a sword as if poised to strike. The accompanying Latin motto, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” is often translated as, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”
Dissatisfaction with the seal among Native American advocates and others dates back decades. Byron Rushing, a former state Representative from Boston, pushed to change the seal for years, but told the New York Times in 2019 that allies had been tough to find.
“Here’s a state that had gay rights, gay marriage and kept voting against the death penalty,” Rushing said at the time. “But when you talked about changing the flag, people went bananas.”
Recently, though, the idea has gained ground on Beacon Hill, and the Legislature moved to create the current commission as the 2020-21 legislative session ended.
Some heraldry experts argue that, because the current design synthesizes elements from previous versions of the seal, it should not be interpreted as threatening or celebrating violence against Native Americans. But commission member Michael Comeau, the executive director of the Massachusetts Archives, said Tuesday that the record is ambiguous when it comes to the design’s intent.
“What was the intent of the original… design? The historical record isn’t overly detailed in that explanation,” he said.
Commissioner Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said that, in the end, the intent behind the existing imagery doesn’t really matter.
“What I really don’t want to have us do … is spend a lot of time in dissecting what [the intent] was,” Andrews-Maltais said. “I don’t believe that anything back then when it was designed was really designed with an intent … to cause harm.
“Can’t change history,” she added. “It is what it is. All we can do is revisit and illuminate what those impacts and implications have been, and figure out how we can move forward.”
While the commission was established over a year ago, there was palpable uncertainty at Tuesday’s meeting about whether the end goal is to modify the existing seal or create an entirely new one.
“Is this a clean-slate rework, completely, or is it a partial?” commissioner Jim Wallace asked. “Because that’s going to determine, really, how the entire commission moves forward. So I think the sooner we get an answer to that as a whole, the better.”
“What’s the path moving forward?” Comeau asked. “What’s the ultimate objective? I’ve never really been entirely clear on that myself.”
Boyles, the commission’s co-chair, urged the body’s three subcommittees to grapple with that question between now and the next full committee meeting in June.
Some commission members worried Tuesday that the slow pace of deliberations could end up imperiling their mission.
“I don’t want to make this go for so long [that] it loses its momentum, because it’s been such a long time coming, ” said commissioner Brittney Walley, who is a member of the Nipmuc Nation.
Comeau echoed that concern.
“I think there is an actual risk to extending things too far,” he said. “I mean, we keep kicking the can down the road, at some point we just appear as sort of meandering and indecisive. … You keep pushing it off and pushing it off, and eventually, it just dies under its own weight.”