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Commission tasked with updating Massachusetts seal, motto remains undecided as deadline nears

The Massachusetts seal.
Alexius Horatius
Creative Commons
The Massachusetts seal.

The commission tasked with making changes to the state seal and motto is newly awash in cash, but members on Tuesday were stuck mulling over how to spend it — and how to wrap up their work — with less than seven weeks until the panel is set to disband.

For decades leading up to the panel's creation in 2021, advocates argued that the state's current imagery represents violence and oppression toward indigenous people. The 18th century seal portrays an indigenous person on a shield. The crest above it, which is also the state's military crest, features an arm holding a sword. The motto is roughly translated from Latin as "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty."

The State Seal Commission has slogged past statutory and internal deadlines, including its original October 2021 due date to report back to lawmakers. And while the Legislature has kept it alive through multiple extensions, the latest push to extend the commission to March 2023 was snuffed by lawmakers in the economic development bill approved at the beginning of the month.

The conference committee that produced that bill did grant $100,000 to the group, which confused commissioner Donna Curtin of the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

"Getting the funding but not getting the time really baffles me. It doesn't seem to make any sense whatsoever," Curtin said.

Co-Chair Brian Boyles said it was "a unique position, in a series of unique positions this commission has been in."

Boyles, the executive director of Mass Humanities, said the panel has "very little time" to spend the funds, and said he has outstanding questions about the money including whether it must be spent by the group's Dec. 31 deadline.

He also wanted to find out whether the commission could award its $100,000 haul to "a third party" that could "take forward" the commission's slow-moving work after its deadline passes.

Vice Chair Brittney Walley called it "not the ideal situation that I would want," and Curtin said it left the commission "between the rock and the hard place."

State Archives Executive Director Michael Comeau cautioned that the commission might not be able to handpick an institution, but would need to abide by state procurement laws and put spending out to bid, which could be a "hurdle that's too high to climb."

"Given the tight timeframe, if we float out the RFP ... do we have enough time, just vis-a-vis the state procurement laws?" he asked.

Kate Miller, an aide to commission member state Rep. Antonio Cabral, D- New Bedford, who has been providing staff support to the commission, said that was another question she'd be researching.

Miller also referenced a continuing "behind the scenes" effort to secure yet another deadline extension. But if that doesn't happen, the group ceases to exist on Dec. 31.

Part of the push for extending the commission into March centered on the idea that the report should be laid before lawmakers during the session when they would potentially act on it. The commission's deadline falls three days before the adjournment of the current General Court.

As for what the commission will have to show for more than a year of research and discussion, members appeared to diverge on how they want to spend their remaining six and a half weeks -- and their new budget.

Boyles said in August that the $100,000 budget they were seeking would include money for initial design work, though some commissioners zeroed in Tuesday on conducting public surveys or hearings.

Walley said she would like to see the commission employ a research center to conduct some sort of statewide survey "before time is up" if they do not receive another extension.

Elizabeth Solomon of the Massachusett Tribe said she thought "it's going to be very hard" to spend money responsibly "with a month and a half, and holidays coming up."

"If we want to come up with something that is really helpful, then we need to really brainstorm on that, and if we don't, then I think we need to think of foregoing the money," Solomon said.

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Leonid Kondratiuk tried to refocus the conversation on "deliverables."

When the Legislature created the commission in early 2021, it directed that the group "shall" recommend a "revised or new design" for the state seal and a "revised or new motto," along with "recommendations for an educational program on the history and meaning of the seal and motto."

"I just want to remind the commission, one of the deliverables -- to use that good word -- is that we're supposed to submit a new design of the seal," Kondratiuk said. "And so, you know, Plan B could be -- if we don't do the survey -- perhaps we could go to a graphics designer and just put some of the things that we've recommended over the last couple of weeks into a design."

Commission member Micah Whitson said he had gotten some initial pricing from designers, but "designers have backlogs, and so the designers that I've picked, or that we may be looking for, may not have time to execute this in six weeks" and that the goal "may not ... be possible."

Now 13 months past the original deadline, members have been spitballing ideas for a new design.

Around eight commissioners took part in an internal survey to begin sketching out possible imagery for the seal and words for the motto, and their thoughts were shared in a spreadsheet during Tuesday's meeting. But even that effort appeared behind schedule.

Around half of the members still had not filled out the survey, and after Boyles emailed another link to the form in the middle of the meeting, the commission sat in several periods of silence while members worked on writing down their overdue responses.

The ideas already submitted include geographic features like the Great Blue Hills, the Berkshire Mountains, and the Atlantic Ocean; flora like the Eastern White Pine, cedar tree, and mayflower blossom; fauna, such as a chickadee, turkey, Northern Right Whale, or codfish; and human figures such as a colonist or indigenous person (which appears on the current seal).

Other ideas on the spreadsheet included "Indian Feather," "Scripted Massachusetts Constitution," "Graphic of state shape," a quill pen, a rising sun, and an image of the State House's Golden Dome.

The motto brainstorming produced one idea with four votes -- "Equality" -- followed by several concepts tied for second place: "Education," "Commonwealth," "Justice," "Liberty," and "Peace."

Other concepts on the drawing board included "Imagination," "Industrious," "Ingenuity," "Resiliency," -- and "Hope," which was claimed by Rhode Island as its motto as far back as 1664.

Boyles set a Friday deadline for members to offer input. Ideas that receive more than one vote will then be compiled into a second internal survey for members to rank their preferences. Boyles said work on that survey would start no later than Monday and be wrapped up by Nov. 30 "at the latest."

Back in August, Boyles laid out a timeline of goals that Indian Affairs Commissioner Jim Peters called "very ambitious." That included an October deadline for work on an RFP and outreach to initial designers.

At a September subcommittee meeting, members voted on three specific questions to be included in a UMass Poll survey, including a multiple-choice option asking which broad category the respondents would like to see featured on the seal -- such as the depiction of a human figure, natural resources, or geometric shapes.

The director of UMass Poll, professor Tatishe Nteta, afterwards told the News Service that "we have no formal relationship with the commission other than an interest in following their work and the corresponding discussions of the future of the seal."

UMass Poll did include one seal question on its October survey, but not the multiple-choice prompt that commissioners had hoped would focus their design brainstorm.

The poll asked whether respondents support or oppose "replacing the state's seal and flag, which shows a colonist's arm brandishing a sword above an image of a Native American."

Out of 700 respondents, 30 percent "strongly" opposed replacing the seal and flag, while 23 percent strongly supported the change. Ten percent "somewhat" opposed it, 12 percent somewhat favored it, and 25 percent did not pick a side.

Before adjourning Tuesday, commissioners also went down a brief tangent about the seal's color scheme, which highlighted some confusion over what the commission's product is going to be.

Whitson said seals should ideally be one color -- the current seal and flag is blue, white, and gold -- and he also mentioned that the state has differing "official" colors, which are blue, green, and cranberry.

Kondratiuk, a military historian, said the current flag's colors date to the 1780s, while the latter colors have less history behind them.

"The cranberry, the green -- you know, that's like the state cookie and the state dinosaur. Somebody voted those in recently," he said.

Indeed, blue, green, and cranberry were not designated as the state colors until after the Legislature in 2004 enacted a bill that had been "filed by a group of youngsters in Democratic Rep. Brian Knuuttila's Gardner district," according to News Service coverage from the time.

Jumping into the color discussion, Rep. Antonio Cabral observed the current seal and flag's color scheme, and asked, "So, are we going to change that? Are we proposing to change that? Are we going to remain with those colors? That's something to think about."

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, called those "fundamental questions."

"Is the commission going to solicit from focus group, entire community, constituents -- you know, change of motto, change of color, change of image, and all of that stuff? So we don't get way out over our skis? Or is this something that the commission is looking to recommend -- change of color, change of motto, change of everything," Andrews-Maltais said. " ... I'm not sure we're still all on the same page, or whether all moving in the same direction with regard to what it is that we're recommending, and how it is that we're going forward."

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