The Semiotics of the Seal

The symbols of our past, even its starker moments, deserve preservation

Just past Dawes Island, at the entrance to Cambridge Common, is a marble gateway topped with an ironwork trellis. At the center of the trellis, a lone Native American stares out enigmatically from a shield, a star over his right shoulder. Above his head a disembodied hand clutches a sword. Below, engraved on a banner, is the inscription, “ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” a Latin phrase meaning, “by the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

This is the Massachusetts State Seal, adopted by Governor John Hancock in 1780. It appears all around campus—on the side of Lowell Lecture Hall or the base of the Anderson footbridge. Yet the seal may soon find itself sharing company with the Betsy Ross flag and the “Don’t Tread On Me” snake in the dustbin of iconographic history. The Massachusetts House of Representatives is currently considering House Bill 3412, a measure which would establish a special commission to determine whether the 230-year-old shield “accurately reflects and embodies the historic and contemporary commitments of the Commonwealth to peace, justice, liberty and equality, and to spreading the opportunities and advantages of education.”

At the center of the issue is the representation of Native Americans in state history. The seal’s centerpiece originally made it onto the image as a holdover from the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s previous seal, which featured a similar Native American, this time naked and base, with a motto emerging from his mouth: “Come and help us.” There is a grim irony in this apostrophe to the Puritan mission civilisatrice, for, as any American must admit, the colonization of North America proceeded not under the mantle of aid but of annihilation. Within years of European contact, Massachusetts’ aboriginal people were decimated by disease and then finished off by military action.

Perhaps in subtle deference to this irony, the seal adopted in 1780 replaced the childlike Native American begging for help with the taciturn, muscled man standing upright that appears today. In a way, the image evokes Rousseau’s “noble savage,” emerging from the wilderness not as a barbarous or murderous villain but as a simple representation of the primitivist and paternalistic fantasy Europeans held about North America, a fantasy which envisaged the new continent as the seat of an uncorrupted paradise. His arrow pointed down in peace, his gaze forward, the hero of the seal takes on more of a proud association with the elements of native culture rather than an assertion of its inferiority.

Where the seal seems to run into further trouble is in the two elements added to the 1780 design: the sword brandished above the Native American’s head and the truculent Latin motto added to the seal. The sword and the motto, bounding the Native American, seem to be visually duplicating the violent hegemony which the European colonists held over the natives. The vertical superiority of the bent white arm reinforces the ugly racial superiority that characterized early Puritan history of Massachusetts.

No doubt this troubled past makes up the stock of the concern expressed in HB 3412. But is it a legitimate interpretation or a case of signs taken for wonders? Historically, the sword and motto have little to do with the image of the Native American. They were both tacked on to the seal during the Revolutionary War, at a time when Massachusetts was at the center of a bloody political struggle against monarchism. The Latin motto is lifted from the English rebel Algernon Sydney, a vehement opponent of the Restoration who was executed for conspiring to kill Charles II. It refers not to a conquest of native peoples but to an ethos of colonial liberation that had become the archetypal sentiment of Massachusetts patriots. The image of the sword refers to the first half of Sydney’s injunction: “manus haec, inimica Tyrannis,” or, “this hand, opposed to tyrants.”

Certainly all the citizens of Massachusetts must grapple with the controversial actions of the colonial period, and must face squarely the moral consequences of colonial slaughter of Native Americans. But it is questionable whether the arena of semiotics is appropriate for these confrontations to take place. The name of the Commonwealth itself stems etymologically from the exterminated Massachusett tribe of Algonquians. Ought we consider changing that as well (perhaps to something like South New Hampshire)?

State seals across the country are rife with the conflicted imagery of the periods in which they were produced. Minnesota and North Dakota both feature caricatured Native Americans riding away into the sunset. Florida’s depicts a native Seminole woman ironically juxtaposed alongside the Christian maxim “In God We Trust.” Not a single state seal features an African-American.

The visual representations of history and identity are of course riddled with historical contingencies. As the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Byron Rushing notes, “We must account for the messages conveyed by the Commonwealth’s most widespread symbols,” and no doubt confronting the artifacts of the past is something all societies must do. The point of the bill—to establish a commission to discuss these semiotic issues—is a healthy expression of our willingness to articulate our orientation with the past. Hopefully, though, the commission will find that the “contemporary commitments” of the Commonwealth lie in the production of a harmonious future, not in re-fabricating elements of the past.

Garrett G. D. Nelson ’09 is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.  His column appears on alternate Fridays.