Bay State Bigotry

By | July 2, 2020

With many white people suddenly taking an interest in structural racism and with Mississippi now about to remove the Confederate bars from its state flag, maybe it’s time for Bay State residents to think about replacing our flag and seal — a white man’s sword hovering over the neck of a Native American. Gone now are Aunt Jemima, the Land O’ Lakes maiden, Uncle Ben, and a slew of other racist caricatures. Maybe now it’s finally time for the people of Dartmouth to rid their schools of their own racist mascot — one copied from Dartmouth College, which banned it in 1974 because… it was too racist. The following is based on a post from September 2019.

If you haven’t looked closely, both the Massachusetts seal and the state flag feature a belt modeled after one worn by Wampanoag Chief Metacomet (beheaded by Puritans) and a white artist’s conception of Wampanoag Chief Ousamequin (Massasoit) standing in submission beneath the sword of Miles Standish. A shortened version of a Latin aphorism — manus haec inimica tyrannis ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (this hand, an enemy to tyrants, seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty) — accompanies the image, conflating Native Americans with tyranny.

The original version of the seal bears no trace of tyrants or Miles Standish, but instead depicts a naked man with a cartoon bubble saying “come over and help us.” For a few short years around the time of American Independence the seal depicted a white man holding the Magna Carta and a sword, after which both versions were combined into what is more-or-less today’s seal. The history of the seal thus charts an arc from a patronizing White Man’s Burden to triumphant White domination. The new seal is one of many images throughout the United States depicting the defeat and humiliation of Native Americans, such as this WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

In order to better understand the seal and its symbols, it may help to review some of the Massachusetts history you never learned in school.

The Puritans, named for their intent to “purify” Protestantism of Catholic influences, arrived in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 in a ship owned by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, the Mayflower, accompanied by an English-born Dutch mercenary named Miles Standish. Many regarded this group of religious zealots as quite extreme, even for England in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. Religion certainly played a part in the Puritan’s appearance in the New World; but colonial avarice was what brought them to it.

Upon their arrival, the Puritans swore allegiance to the English King, James (for whom a version of the Protestant bible is named) and signed the Mayflower Compact, “having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia [the Hudson Valley, now in New York].” With supplies running low and winter approaching, they never made it to the Hudson Valley and instead established the “Plimoth” colony.

Forget the communal First Thanksgiving potluck you learned about in school. It was war against brown people from the moment the Puritans arrived. Miles Standish had a well-earned reputation, even among some of the colonists, for brutality and slaughter of Native Americans. Hartman Deetz, of the Wampanoag Nation, notes that in 1623 Standish committed “one of the first recorded egregious murders of native people by colonists in north America. […] the murder of a man, Pecksuot, just south of Boston. Standish […] lured him into a house under the premise that they were going to conduct trade. And when he got into the house, they barred the doors, and he stabbed [Pecksuot] through the heart with his own knife.” Standish also killed and beheaded another warrior named Wituwamat, slaughtered his family, and brought Wituwamat’s head back to Plymouth and displayed it on a wooden pike.

In New England the genocide and enslavement of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans are bound together in a history that began almost simultaneously.

In 1633, European slave-hunters came to Southern New England to look for Native Americans to press into slavery. Two of them were killed by the Pequot and the Puritans demanded that the killers be turned over for colonial justice. The Pequots refused. In May of 1637 English troops set fire to a Pequot village near Mystic River in Connecticut killing 700 women, children, and elderly; the survivors were enslaved. William Bradford, the governor of the colony, reported, “It was a fearful sight to see them [Pequots] thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them […]”

In 1638, the Puritans began trafficking enslaved survivors of the decimated Pequot nation, trading them for African slaves from the West Indies. Historian James Drake notes that “the war produced hundreds of Indian refugees, who lived as vagabonds within or on the edges of New England towns.” Slavery “[…] helped satisfy the dilemma of what to “do” with them.”

It is understandable that a flag consisting of a subservient Native American, a colonial mercenary’s sword hanging over his head, and a Latin phrase insinuating that he is a tyrant would surely offend people in the 21st Century. More importantly, the sentiments on the seal and flag no longer represent the aspirations of a 21st Century democracy.

For this reason there are currently two resolutions in the Massachusetts legislature, both entitled “Resolve providing for the creation of a special commission relative to the seal and motto of the Commonwealth” — a House version, H.2776, sponsored by Reps. Lindsay N. Sabadosa and Nika C. Elugardo; and S.1877, sponsored by Senator Jason M. Lewis. Rep. Sabadosa told WGBH that “the legislation does not spell out what we want to change the seal and logo to, […] It just says that we need to put together a commission really composed of native voices so that we can find a symbol that represents the values of Massachusetts that’s true to our history but is also respectful at the same time.”

The current state seal was created in 1908 — eighteen years before the Wounded Knee Massacre and sixteen years before Native Americans were given American citizenship. 1908 was not a time of great sensitivity to Native Americans, who were not even regarded as fellow citizens when the “new” seal was created.

In parallel with calls to change the state flag, there is also a national movement to end the use of “Indian mascots” on school sports teams. Maine just became the first state in the nation to throw racist mascots into the dust bin of history. Nationally, over 2000 schools have mascots with names like Warriors (#1), Indians (#2), Raiders, Braves, Chiefs, Redskins, Redmen, Savages, Squaws, Shaman, or specific tribal names — like the Braintree Wamps (named for the Wampanoag).

As with the cigar store Indian, Native Americans have been frequently de-humanized and reduced to avatars and mascots for commercial products — on the same low level as the Geico gecko or the Aflac duck. And yet — here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century! — the Land o’ Lakes maiden still serves alongside Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima as a racist mascot for corporate America.

But corporate exploitation just echoes the widespread racism in society. Caricatures of Native Americans join the lawn jockey, the sleepy Mexican, Sambo, Chief Wahoo, mammies, Golliwogs, tar babies, pickaninnies, hooked-nosed Jews and Arabs, squinting Asians, and countless racist depictions of non-white people on White America’s lawns and curio shelves. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) created a poster to try to convey to White America how racist the Cleveland Indian mascot was — but the lesson was apparently too difficult, or too subtle, to comprehend.

On June 25th, 2019 the Massachusetts legislature will conduct joint hearings on two bills prohibiting the use of racist mascots. House bill H.443 sponsored by Reps. Nika C. Elugardo and Tami L. Gouveia joins Senate bill S.247 sponsored by Senator Joanne M. Comerford in charting a path for the phase-out of offensive mascots without imposing financial hardships on the schools that have them. Local schools include: the Barnstable Red Raiders; the Braintree Wamps; the Bristol Aggie Chieftains; the Dartmouth Indians; and the Middleborough Sachems.

Closer to home, the Dartmouth Schools don’t understand how redface and caricaturing Native Americans actually undermines their own anti-discrimination, anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies: “The school system shall establish and maintain an atmosphere in which all persons can develop attitudes and skills for effective cooperative living in our culturally diverse society.”

Unless, of course, you go on Twitter.

A frequent justification for not retiring Native Indian mascots is that schools are somehow honoring Native Americans rather than simply turning them into cartoons. Dartmouth High School’s mascot is the “Indian,” patterned after Dartmouth (NH) College’s. The nickname “Big Green” remains the same for both schools, and the green letter “D” is still exactly the same. But in 1974 the College decided it was time for their racist mascot to go. Not so for the eponymous high school.

A number of Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda, and the Nipmuc nation, reject mascots outright. In Oregon one school district negotiated with a tribal council to set parameters for the use of tribal imagery. In Utah a tribal council took to social media to slam a parody of a tribal dance done by cheerleaders with wigs on a basketball court. Tribes are being consulted, or at least being heard, in other states.

Why not Massachusetts?

In 2005, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) looked at offensive mascots, 14 schools decided to drop them altogether, 19 were cited for abusive names and imagery, and many were prohibited from participating in tournaments. Several schools which previously used the name “Indians” changed them to: the Arkansas Red Wolves, Indiana Crimson Hawks, McMurry War Hawks, Midwestern State Mustangs, Newberry College Wolves, and so on. Change can be easily, and quickly, accomplished.

It is not known if the Dartmouth High School Student Manual’s “respect” rationale for continuing to use the “Indian” mascot was based on approval from local tribal councils or if they were ever consulted. The School Committee controls the mascot logo as if they held a copyright on Native Americans. I emailed and then followed-up with a call to Dr. Bonnie Gifford, Dartmouth’s Superintendent of Schools, passing along several questions to her assistant. But as of publication time I have not received a reply. Likewise, emails to every member of the town School Committee have gone unanswered.

When it comes to respecting or honoring tribes, “honor” is not a verb white people get to define. Tim Giago, an Oglala-Lakota from South Dakota, has his own definition:

“If the white race wants to honor Native Americans, start by honoring our treaties.”

“And please, please keep in mind; there is no difference between wearing Blackface than there is in wearing “Redface.”

The Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda supports both the flag and seal and mascot legislation. It is also supported by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Both bills are before the legislature and both bills need your support.

It’s 2020. There has been a recent shift in thinking about racism.  Here in New England, and particularly the SouthCoast, we ought not congratulate ourselves for our supposed tolerance, given that even Mississippi has now retired their racist flag and a New Hampshire college banned Dartmouth’s identical racist mascot — 46 years ago. Let’s get rid of these insulting reminders of our white supremacist legacy and build on this first step by working to rid the rest of our institutions of the structural racism that is America’s most serious pandemic.