We have been discussing the various statues, memorials, and dedications being struck around the country. I have been critical of some of these moves as erasing history that should be part of a broader understanding of all citizens. Now leaders are lining up to strike the Massachusetts flag because of its depiction of a Native American. Cambridge declared the flag recently as “offensive” and demanded its replacement. There appears however some disagreement on what is offensive with some pointing to the depiction of a Native American while others say the problem is the arm holding a sword.
The flag captures the history of the commonwealth, including its Native American heritage. It features an Algonquian Native American with the arrow pointing down to symbolize peace. The figure itself is believed to be a depiction of the Wampanoag tribe leader Ousamequin, who signed the first treaty between the tribe and the pilgrims in 1621. That is the event that led to the story of the first Thanksgiving.
The blue ribbon bears the state motto Ense Petit Placidam, Sub Libertate Quietem (“By the Sword We Seek Peace, But Peace Only Under Liberty”). Above the shield is the bent arm holding a broadsword. The arm is meant to be that of Myles Standish. While formally adopted in 1908, it have been used in the commonwealth since the Revolutionary War, including by the Massachusetts Navy.
That is a lot of history, but critics are now either objecting to the sword or the Algonquian or both as offensive. Over 30 municipalities have endorsed a state bill to remove and replace the state’s flag and motto.
Some critics do not object to the figure but the arm of Standish. Hartman Deetz, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, told WGBH that Standish “represents the death of native people. He represents the threat of the 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.”
What I fail to see is why such history cannot be made part of the understanding of the origins of the Commonwealth. It is all part of the storied history of Massachusetts as a Native American region, a colony, and a state. Much of that history has painful elements but it is part of a shared history. I love visiting Massachusetts for its history, good and bad. It is a place so heavily embed with history that simply walking its streets is a history lesson. Keeping that history is not celebrating every aspect or event. It is all a mosaic of a state that not only played a critical role in defining liberty but fighting against its own prejudices and abuses.
The flag is part of the Commonwealth’s story and it is a complicated and wonderful story to tell.