Massachusetts Statehouse Art Shows “Peaceful” and “Praying” Indians, Ignores the Harm

The first official seal of the Colony of Massachusetts, shown in a stained glass window in the Massachusetts State House.
The first official seal of the Colony of Massachusetts: 1628.

Shown at right is the first official seal of the Massachusetts Colony. It has a Native American dressed in a grass skirt with the words coming from his mouth: “Come Over and Help Us.”

Right.

First, the Wampanoag native to the area did not wear grass skirts. Second, does anyone believe that any of them ever said: “Come Over and Help Us”? In fact, the colonists soon cheated the Wampanoag out of their land and banned their language.

massachusetts-seal-close-up
A close up of the stained glass window.

And so we continue with our tour of art in the various state capitols and statehouses to see how they depict Native Americans and early U.S. history. (Information on capitol art in Minnesota and other states is collected on 0ur Capitol Art page.)

Today’s tour is the Statehouse of the Massachusetts Commonwealth. This stained glass version of the first Colonial Seal appears prominently atop a large window over a main Statehouse staircase. The window includes all the iterations of the Massachusetts seal.

It might seem historically quaint to some, but this original seal reflects a narrative of the helpless Indian. The words are not legible to passersby even if they stopped and squinted. Still, is this an image that you would show with pride in your most important state building, especially with no counter narrative or sign of regret?

I recently visited Massachusetts and got a chance to walk through the Statehouse, with the exception of the House and Senate chambers which were closed. Not surprisingly, the art focuses on historic themes such as the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War.

As in the Minnesota State Capitol, however, art in the Massachusetts Statehouse also depicts Manifest Destiny, Indians being converted to Christianity, and has images that extol the virtues of early settlers without looking at the incredible pain and loss inflicted on Native peoples.

Massachusetts current state seal.
The current Seal for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The current Massachusetts seal also is problematic. It appears all over the Statehouse, as well as in the stained glass window (at right).

The Massachusetts legislature adopted this seal in 1775. According to Wikipedia:

“The shield depicts an Algonquian Native American with bow and arrow; the arrow is pointed downward, signifying peace.”

The state motto, written in Latin in the ribbon below the Algonquin man, is: “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem,” That means “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty. Above the Algonquin man is a large bent arm brandishing a broad sword. “The sword has its blade up, to remind that it was through the American Revolution that independence was won.”

To recap, the Massachusetts seal has a peaceful Algonquin man sandwiched between messages of violence: the broadsword on top, and the words “By the sword we seek peace” on the bottom. There is no indication of the violence done to the Native peoples of Massachusetts.

A Brief History

Massachusetts State House mural depicting the Mayflower crossing, complete with angelic images of Manifest destiny.
Massachusetts Statehouse rotunda mural depicting the Mayflower crossing, complete with angelic images of Manifest destiny.

The name “Massachusetts” comes from the Wampanoag word “Massachuset,” which means “by the range of hills,” according to the website native-languages.org. The Native peoples did suffer violence. Here is the website’s brief history:

The Wampanoags are most famous for greeting and befriending the Pilgrims in 1620, bringing them corn and turkey to help them through the difficult winter and starting a Thanksgiving tradition that is still observed today. Unfortunately, the relationship soon soured. As more British colonists arrived in Massachusetts, they began displacing the Wampanoags from their traditional lands, particularly by plying Wampanoag men with alcohol and obtaining their signatures on land sale documents while they were drunk. The Wampanoag

Manifest Destiny: The ribbon below the angels reads: "For the Lord is our defense ... And the Holy One of Israel is our King.
Manifest Destiny: The ribbon below the angels reads: “For the Lord is our defense … And the Holy One of Israel is our King.”

leader Metacomet, known as “King Philip” to the English, tried to get this practice outlawed, and when the British refused, a war ensued. The British won decisively, sold many of the Wampanoag survivors into slavery, drove the rest into hiding, and forbade the use of the Massachusett language and Wampanoag tribal names. Only in 1928 were the Wampanoag people able to reclaim their tribal identity.

Puritan Preacher John Eliot converts the local Native Americans.
Massachusetts State House mural: Puritan Preacher John Eliot converts Native Americans.

The last piece of Statehouse art to review is a major mural in the rotunda extolling Puritan preacher John Eliot and his efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The Massachusetts Legislature provides the following background on the painting:

One of the first missionaries to the Indians, Eliot began preaching the Gospel to local Native Americans at Nonantum in 1646. Although his first sermons were in English, he soon mastered Algonquin for his preaching; the first Bible printed in North America in 1661–63 was his translation into the Indian language. In 1651 Eliot petitioned the General Court for a tract of land in Natick on which to settle an Indian community. He eventually assisted in organizing fourteen Christian-Indian communities, and trained several converts to continue his works in the hope of Christianizing all New England tribes.

According to a separate Wikipedia entry, this painting shows Eliot leading the Indians in prayer. The “Praying Indian” entry gives the following explanation to the term:

Praying Indian is a 17th-century term referring to Native Americans of New England, New York, Ontario, and Quebec who converted to Christianity. Many groups are referred to by this term, but it is more commonly used for tribes that were organized into villages. These villages were known as praying towns and were established by those such as Puritan leader John Eliot …

A painting of Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony hangs in the Minnesota Governor's Reception Room.
A painting of Father Hennepin in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room.

Notice the similarities to the painting of Father Hennepin at the Falls of Saint Anthony hung in the Minnesota State Capitol. Like Hennepin, Eliot stands above the Native peoples, most sitting or stooped, symbolizing his power and authority over them.

Yes, it’s historical. It belongs in a museum where it can be put in its full context.

At what point will Minnesota, Massachusetts, or any other state move on from the old and often inaccurate stories in their Capitol art and create new, more truthful and positive stories where more and more people feel welcomed?

The photos from the Massachusetts State House in this blog are Healing Minnesota Stories photos and may be reproduced for non-commercial educational use.

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