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If at first you don’t succeed, try another commission? State Senate seeks new panel to change controversial Mass. flag.

The Massachusetts state flag flies in front of the State House.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Let’s try this again.

Months after a commission failed to agree on a substitute for Massachusetts’s controversial state seal, the state Senate voted late Thursday to create another panel to propose a new seal, flag, and motto for the state, this time with a deadline of making recommendations sometime next year.

Senators voted, 30-9, shortly before midnight to attach the measure and $100,000 in new funding for the panel to its $58 billion state budget plan. Should it survive closed-door negotiations with House leaders, the proposal would revive what has been a fraught, and expensive, process to replace state seal and flag long criticized as offensive to Native Americans.


The 19th-century emblem depicts a colonist’s arm holding a sword above the image of a Native American, and is draped by a Latin motto that roughly translates to: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

“Massachusetts is now the only state in the nation that has this type of imagery on their flag,” state Senator Jason Lewis said on the Senate floor Thursday, according to a State House News Service transcript of floor remarks. The Winchester Democrat pushed for the creation of the original panel in January 2021.

That 20-person commission labored through years of delays and legislative extensions. It voted at one point to replace the state’s motto and seal but failed to propose an actual replacement despite it, too, receiving $100,000 in state funding. One member told the Globe last year that it was the “worst working group that I have ever dealt with in my career.”

In its report, the panel said a new seal and motto should include symbols that are “aspirational and inclusive of the diverse perspectives, histories, and experiences of Massachusetts residents.” It provided a variety of suggestions, including different flora such as an elm tree or cranberries; a chickadee or cod; or geographic features, including the ocean, coastline, or simply the state’s shape.


The group also noted that a majority of Native American respondents to a public survey it conducted indicated that they prefer keeping a Native American figure on the seal.

State Senator Jason Lewis filed the amendment to create another commission to recommend a new Massachusetts state seal and flag.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

But the panel did not offer specific designs of what those should be. Instead, it recommended that Secretary of State William F. Galvin should be tasked with creating a new seal and motto — and by extension, the state flag that currently features both.

The Senate’s proposal would do something slightly different. It would create a slimmer, 10-person commission that would be required to offer three options for a new seal and new flag, and hold at least three public hearings to get feedback. It would then have to select a final design no more than a year after its creation. The governor, secretary of state, and executive director of the state’s Commission on Indian Affairs, among others, would have the power to make selections or seat themselves.

While it was adopted, some Democrats and Republicans alike opposed creating yet another advisory group. State Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who sat on the original 20-person commission and voted against its report, said the amendment would spend another $100,000 “to tell us things we already know from the survey” that the first panel conducted. Collins was one of six Democrats who voted against the proposal.


State Senator Peter Durant, a Spencer Republican, chided the Senate for redoing the commission “because we didn’t like the answer it came up with last time.” He also questioned whether the seal and flag need to be replaced at all.

“Does it offend some people? I suppose it does, but I think we could find something that would offend everyone,” Durant said on the Senate floor, according to the State House News Service transcript. “We have history in this state and that’s important.”

State Senator Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat, said Senate leaders spoke with officials from the governor’s office, House leaders, and others who agreed that they “did not want that work to be over” on replacing the seal and flag.

In a bit of symbolism, even the Senate’s own debate about a new commission faced delays. An alarm in the State House interrupted floor speeches about the proposal, forcing an evacuation of the building. State Police later determined there was a water leak in the basement, and senators returned to the chamber shortly after 11 p.m.

Designed by illustrator Edmund Garrett in 1898, the current seal draws on the original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which featured a Native American man, naked but for some shrubbery about his groin, saying, “Come over and help us.”

The sword depicted in the seal once belonged to Myles Standish, a 17th-century military commander for the Plymouth Colony known for his brutality toward the Indigenous population.


Efforts to replace it have spanned years. Former state Representative Byron Rushing first pushed legislation in the 1980s to create a commission to examine the state seal, only for it to repeatedly die in the Democratic-led Legislature.

The effort finally gained momentum in the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd spurred a nationwide reckoning of racial injustice and, by extension, racist symbols. Protesters around the country toppled Confederate statues and pushed for the removal of other emblems and imagery. That included a renewed and often contentious debate about the use Native American imagery in sport and school logos, including in Massachusetts schools.

The Legislature ultimately would have to approve any changes to the seal, motto, and flag. Under the Senate measure, the governor would also have to file a bill to amend various parts of the state law to reflect a new state motto and designs for the seal and flag.

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.