Our Opinion: State seal redesign effort offers chance to honestly engage history

A symbol is a powerful thing. Reinvigorated by nationwide protests against social injustice, a new wave of conversation takes aim at the values extrapolated from the idolization of certain icons from the complicated annals of U.S. history. While in some corners of the country this pertains to statues of Confederate leaders and proponents of slavery, Massachusetts faces its own necessary conversation, as Native American activists and advocates point to the state's seal as emblematic of the violent subjugation of the state's indigenous population.

A resolution on Beacon Hill presents an opportunity for the Bay State to lead the way in this overdue dialogue and chart a reasoned road to interrogating our loftiest symbols with our highest principles in mind. The state Senate on Tuesday approved a measure that would create a special commission to redesign a new state seal and motto.

The current seal, displayed prominently on the state flag, features a Native American beneath a disembodied arm brandishing a sword. Accompanying the imagery, in Latin, is the state motto: "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty." The bill's proponents correctly point out that this represents, at best, a gross historical revision of Native Americans' suffering at the hands of white colonists or, at worst, the glorification thereof. The "sword" of colonialism brought neither "peace" nor "liberty" to the tribes of Massachusetts but rather dispossession and genocide. The least we could do as a progressive state is to affirm the basic dignity of Native Americans by honestly recognizing these historical events without lionizing them.

In debates over symbolism, passions can rise, stemming from the compounded indignity suffered by communities whose historical oppression is downplayed or even mocked by icons they see every day. These frustrations, while understandable, can find unproductive outlets, such as mobs taking it upon themselves to destroy or deface public property. Some of these instances have been particularly misguided. Protesters in Madison, Wis., and Philadelphia defaced likenesses of Hans Christian Heg and Matthias Baldwin, American historical figures who were in fact abolitionists dedicated to fighting slavery and racism. And in Portsmouth, Va., the haphazard felling of a Confederate monument left a man with life-threatening head injuries after being struck by the toppling statue.

In contrast, the Senate resolution to rethink the state seal wisely proposes a way forward for these conversations through careful consideration by a qualified and inclusive commission. The panel would comprise representation of the state Commission on Indian Affairs, descendants of Massachusetts tribes, lawmakers and several state historical and cultural commissions, as well as appointees of the governor with "relevant cultural and historical expertise."

For his part, Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this month told State House News Service that he is "open to those conversations," as we all should be. Recognizing our society's past sins does not require continual atonement, and this is not, as some detractors will argue, a wholesale rejection of our past. It is a good-faith effort to engage our history in its entirety, so that the symbols that stand to represent us actually represent all of us.

Some might still decry the endeavor as heavy-handed revisionism of imagery bound up with our state's history. Those truly caring for the integrity of history, however, would note that the modern presentation of the state seal adopted near the turn of the 20th century contains a significant historical inaccuracy. The Native American pictured on the seal is a composite image, with the figure's head depicting a Chippewa chief from Montana — further alienating those Native Americans whose identities are forever affected by their ancestors being forced off their land in Massachusetts.

In the Berkshires, Stockbridge has a complex history of interaction between indigenous people and colonists. The Mahicans — known as the Stockbridge Indians — coexisted peacefully with British settlers and even aided colonists in their battle for independence during the Revolutionary War. Massachusetts assured the Stockbridge Indians that their land would not be sold — a promise that was rescinded in the early 1800s when they were forcibly removed and sent far from their homes to Wisconsin.

This history cries out to be recognized, and historically silenced voices are long due their say in the complicated legacy of how state imagery intersects with our commonwealth's values and its flawed past. We urge the state House of Representatives to follow the Senate's suit and approve the resolution to redesign the state seal. Massachusetts has the chance to exemplify a civil, thoughtful and meaningful method for grappling with the great weight of symbolism.