Join the conversation with Lesley design students and Indigenous cultural and political leaders in Massachusetts.
Beyond the Flag brings you conversations with Interactive Design BFA students Madeline Meyer '21, Jess Stevens '21, and Indigenous leaders who are part of the Community Design Studio and the College of Art and Design's year-long effort to support a legislative initiative to reconsider the seal, motto, and flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our work informs the legislative commission, engages public spaces throughout Massachusetts by means of a public art installation featuring a QR code to the podcast, and encourages outcomes that reconcile the symbols of a hurtful colonial past with the cultural, political, environmental, and social priorities of Native and non-Native communities today.
Our series begins with partner Jean-Luc Pierite, Board President of the North American Indian Center of Boston who describes the current Massachusetts state flag as, “evocative of the intergenerational trauma and colonial violence which Native communities have endured for the past 400 years.”
Madeline Meyer: Beyond the Flag is presented by Lesley Art and Design's, Community Design Studio located in the ancestral homeland of the Massachusett people: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Welcome to Beyond the Flag. I'm Madeline Meyer.
Jess Stevens: And I'm Jess Stevens.
Madeline: For many of us who call the Commonwealth of Massachusetts home, our state flag can go right over our heads.
Jess: Many of us don't notice because it's deceptively simple. It's a white background with a blue seal and a yellow figure.
Madeline: When we began this project in September, we thought we'd just be talking about flags. But as we began to learn more, it unraveled before us and showed us more than a lifetime of misrepresentation and misinformation.
Jess: In this series, you'll have the opportunity to learn alongside Madeline and I as we challenge the myths that Indigenous people in the state have been fighting for years.
Madeline: Join us as we meet with some extraordinary individuals, embark on difficult conversations, and stumble along the way.
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Understanding the Massachusetts State Flag with Jean-Luc Pierite
Lesley College of Art + Design’s Community Design Studio invites you to a conversation with Jean-Luc Pierite and co-hosts Madeline Meyer and Jess Stevens about the Massachusetts state flag, seal, and motto. This introductory discussion also explores themes of education, mascots, and what it really means to have a seat at the table.
To familiarize yourself with the Massachusetts state flag, check out this graphic from Change the Mass Flag.
About Jean-Luc Pierite
Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, Jean-Luc now resides in Jamaica Plain. Prior to his election to the North American Indian Center of Boston Board of Directors, Jean-Luc was also elected to the Community Linguist seat of the Advisory Circle for CoLang for the period 2016-20. The Institute on Collaborative Language Research or "CoLang" provides an opportunity for community language activists and linguists to receive training in community-based language documentation and revitalization.
Jean-Luc volunteers with his Tribe's Language and Culture Revitalization Program which is a collaboration with Tulane University in New Orleans. This program is based on traditions passed from Jean-Luc's great-grandfather Joseph Alcide Pierite, Sr., the last traditional chief and medicine man of the Tunica-Biloxi. The Tribe is an amalgamation of members from the Central Louisiana communities of Tunica, Biloxi-Choctaw, Ofo, and Avoyel.
Jean-Luc is a student in the Master in Design for Emergent Futures at the Institut d'Arquitectura Avançada de Catalunya. Jean-Luc has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Humanities with a co-major in Mass Communication and Japanese from Dillard University in New Orleans. He also earned an Associate in Science (AS) in Video Game Design from Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida.
Jean-Luc Pierite's show notes and transcript
Learn more about the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB):
- Visit the NAICOB website
- Visit the NAICOB Instagram page
- Visit the NAICOB Twitter page
- Visit the NAICOB Facebook page
Theme music from Blue Dot Sessions
Madeline Meyer: Welcome to Beyond the Flag. I'm Madeline Meyer
Jess Stevens: And I'm Jess Stevens.
Madeline Meyer: We are so excited to kick off the first episode of the series!
Jess Stevens: Yes! And I honestly can't think of a better guest to start with.
Madeline Meyer: Jean-Luc Pierite is the President of the Board of Directors at the North American Indian Center of Boston. Otherwise known as NAICOB.
Jess Stevens: Before we get going, you may want to pause the podcast, just to take a quick look at the current seal and flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Madeline Meyer: Yes. Jean-Luc is going to share a really in-depth explanation of both the imagery's problematic nature and the recent legislative efforts to change it
Jess Stevens: Problematic is probably an understatement.
Madeline Meyer: Yes.
Jess Stevens: He also gives us a great introduction to some of the larger themes that we're going to be discussing in this series, such as education mascots, and what it truly means to have a seat at the table.
Madeline Meyer: We are so happy that you're coming along with us. Let's talk to Jean-Luc.
Jean-Luc Pierite: As is our practice at the North American Indian Center of Boston, NAICOB is on the traditional Indigenous territory of the Massachusett Nation who continue to this day in part through their lineal descendants, the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag.
And in recognizing the land that NAICOB is on, we are making certain agreements with our host tribe. One such agreement is to support every effort for the rematriation of land and natural resources back to the original peoples. So my name is Jean-Luc Pierite and as we say, in Tunica, heni hotu ima Jean-Luc Pierite etisa ima ima tayoroniku-halayihku etisa.
My name is Jean-Luc Pierite. I'm Tunica-Biloxi, Tribe of Louisiana, originally from New Orleans, and currently the President of the Board of Directors at the North American Indian Center of Boston. So very happy to have this conversation with you today.
Madeline Meyer: Thank you so much for meeting with us. Could you please bring us up to speed on why it's so important to update the current flag and seal?
Jean-Luc Pierite: When we look at the flag and we look at the seal, a lot of attention is drawn to the native figure. And it is important to note that this is a composite of a person. This is not an actual human that existed. In designing the current seal, those designers took the head of Thomas Littleshell. They took bones that were excavated from an archeological dig to get the proportions of a Massachusett person.
And they also took the sash of a Pometacomet or, or King Phillip, who after the King Philip's war, he was beheaded, and his head was placed on a pike and put on display for 25 years. If you go to Plymouth, Massachusetts, we currently know that spot as Post Office Square. So you can actually go to the spot where King Phillip's, decapitated head was placed on display.
Above the Native figure, you will see a rapier that was designed after the sword of Miles Standish. And we can infer that that is the disembodied arm of Miles Standish positioned in a way that is set to attack, or further decapitate, the Native figure.
Underneath the seal, there's a ribbon that says in Latin, and I'm just going to say the paraphrase of the translation; "We seek peace, but by the sword." And so you can see that there's a lot of telegraphing in the design of that seal and it is evocative of the intergenerational trauma and colonial violence which our communities have endured for the past 400 years.
As far as coming into this issue relative to the seal and motto of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a couple of years ago we started the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda Coalition, which we’re centering on Indigenous issues within the state. One of those bills that we included within the agenda was the bill pursuing the seal and motto commissions.
This was a bill that was picked up after about 34 years of advocacy from former representative Byron Rushing. And so we are grateful for that, championed by former representative Byron Rushing, we're looking to take on that advocacy again because it is time for Massachusetts to come together and forge a new symbol towards the sustainable future that we're all hoping to achieve.
Madeline Meyer: Well, we could not agree more. Looking to the future, we know that there have been some updates in the current legislative agenda. Could you share some of the good news with us?
Jean-Luc Pierite: Yeah. It was historic enough that the Senate had unanimously voted to pass the seal and motto bill. And then on January 6th, oh goodness, we had like an overnight marathon run there between the house and the Senate. But basically, around 4:00 in the morning, the bill actually got passed by the house and then sent to the governor's desk to be signed. And so right now, we're waiting on the actual, formal seating over the full commission relative to the seal and motto.
The Mass Commission on Indian Affairs has appointed five local tribal representatives to represent MCIA on the commission. So very happy for Brittney Wally of Nipmuck Nation, Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, Elizabeth Solomon of Massachusetts Tribe at Ponkapoag, Chairwoman Melissa Harding-Ferretti of Herring Pond Wampanoag, and Moskwetah Weeden of the Mashpee Wampanoag.
Very happy for all of their not just being seated, but as per the letter of the bill itself, we are actually hearing from the people who are most impacted by the history behind the imagery. So it is most important to center their voices and have them be the true leaders of all Indigenous peoples here within the Commonwealth.
Madeline Meyer: This is such good news. As a designer, I'm kind of curious, do you have any idea about what the special commission might be looking for in a redesign?
Jean-Luc Pierite: I think that part of the issue is the presence or omission of the Native figure. One of the big controversies is in fact how the native figure was actually composed. To reiterate, it's a composite figure, evoking that colonial, violent history.
You can actually take a look at some of the imagery behind some of the tribal nations, especially the Massachusett tribe at Ponkapoag. They have a very similar-looking seal, but basically, this is something that comes from the community itself. When you look at the Massachusett seal, you're looking at something that is composed by the tribe itself.
I think that when it actually considered the source if the imagery, and especially having that, co-authoring by these Indigenous leaders on the commission, having a seat at the table, having a say as to what the actual seal going forward looks like, I think that having that community-based process being led by Indigenous peoples and having their voices be centered, I think that those are some of the key features as to what the future of the seal actually looks like.
Madeline Meyer: You mentioned this idea of having a seat at the table. And in our research process, I've heard this phrase used, more than a couple of times at this point. So I'm wondering, what does it mean to really have a seat at the table?
Jean-Luc Pierite: Right now, we are at about 400 years since the original treaty with Massasoit. Last year, we were set to recognize the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower. And for Indigenous peoples, and at least from the NAICOB perspective, it's not necessarily something that is quite remarkable to have a ship go from Europe to America.
What is perhaps more remarkable and has much more of a legacy is that original treaty with Massasoit and that beginning of government to government relationships between the Indigenous Nations and the settlers that would go on to form the nation-state of the United States of America.
And so, when we're talking about a seat at the table, this is not something that can necessarily be granted to Indigenous peoples, because we already have those agreements. We already have those treaties. We already have the seat. I think, the claiming of that seat, the occupation of that seat, the recognition is the most important thing within this process.
We have to actually affirm those relationships between Massachusetts and the tribal nations within the borders, but then also, tribes that have relationships with Massachusetts that are outside of the borders. So we have centuries of history to reconcile, centuries of agreements to reconcile. And hopefully, this process will be something that will affirm those agreements.
Madeline Meyer: So basically, they should already have a seat at the table. Technically, there is a seat that should already have their name on it. It's just, they're not being allowed to take up that space.
Jean-Luc Pierite: Well, let's just be careful. Yeah, because that can go a couple of ways, right? Indigenous Nations have, inherently our most sacred possession, which is our sovereignty. So that's not something that can be allowed or permitted by a nation-state. We have that regardless. That's why I use the word to affirm that those relationships exist, that infrastructure is there. Because we have tribal governments, we have organizations such as NAICOB which serve as a liaison between the Commonwealth tribal nations outside of the current borders.
So those relationships are there, but I think what's really critical to remember is that when we're going through all of these public institutions, when we're going through schools that still have native mascots, and we have this seal and motto still flying over our heads, we have this mythology of who Native people were when they lived here, which that in itself is mythology. We have to recognize that your friends and neighbors have a whole different government. We have a whole different citizenship. And the land that you are occupying right now is the historical land of those ancestors. The land that we walk upon, the bones of ancestors are within the Earth.
And so that's not something that is within the public consciousness. And so with that, not being in the public consciousness, we then have students who go through public schools that have these mascots. We have people who graduate from public schools and enter into the world and have to navigate these civic systems that are represented by the seal and motto.And we have little to no representation of Indigenous peoples at the statehouse.
And so it is absolutely disappointing. It is absolutely not the way that it should be. But in some small way, it is understandable that we would have public agents and public agencies and institutions that aren't necessarily savvy of their own obligations to the tribal nations that have had these relationships with Massachusetts.
Madeline Meyer: Okay, I think I understand. So what you're saying is that there are two separate entities, which should have a better connection, but this kind of relies on further education on our part in order to recognize that these two groups should be on the same footing. And so all of that is what it means to have a seat at the table.
Jean-Luc Pierite: Yes, yes, Yes. Because it goes to Indigenous cosmovision, our ways of knowing, and often talking about our [inaudible] as something that is interconnected. We don't necessarily compartmentalize all different aspects.
And so, I can talk about the seal and motto. I can talk about mascots, but then I can talk about them from a systems perspective. I can talk about them from the aspect of civic engagement. What is the need to hear and to center the voices of Indigenous peoples when it comes to environmental justice? We're making decisions about public lands and resources that are very much tied to the history, to the ancestry to all of those claims by the tribes. In order to actually move forward into a sustainable future, into a future in which we are safeguarding our future generations and our environment, we need to center the voices of Indigenous peoples.
But we also need to reconcile how Indigenous peoples are being portrayed within the public sphere and move past that iconography, that visual language which impacts Indigenous voice. If I have assumptions about a certain community that are affirmed by stereotypes within the way that my state is represented, within the way that my schools are represented, that is going to impact how much I answer the voices of those who are othered by that imagery.
Jess Stevens: I’m honestly just going over what you said about having that imagery, especially in schools. I think that that's very interesting that people might not even realize that their school mascots and logos and sayings are leading them in a direction of these certain preconceptions and thoughts about communities that are simply not true. So I think that that's a connection that I never really thought of when it comes to school imagery, and I think that that's really powerful and strong.
Jean-Luc Pierite: Yeah, no problem. Right now, Wakefield is about to take up a referendum, actually kicking it to a ballot question, about whether they should move from the Wakefield Warriors. And I personally recognize how a school can form our sense of community where we form our worldview.
And so when we have this imagery, we have this visual language, we have a culture that we become attached to. And it is very hard to let that go. And so, I can conceive of how it is difficult for people to let that go.
I actually, personally, started off a lot of my advocacy around mascots. When Biloxi, Mississippi actually had their marching band representing their school, the “Indians” marched the Cherry Blossom Parade, or, whatever that is in Washington, DC. And so, that's when that issue of school mascot got it into the national consciousness, because it's like, this is the “Biloxi Indians” marching in Washington, DC.
And I have to, as a Tunica-Biloxi person, I have to say, whoa. The Biloxi Indians, you're talking about my grandparents, my great-grandparents, myself. Being a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, those are real people to me. That's not just people in a history book, those are people within my living memory. And you have this marching band wear headdresses, not from our tribe. My great-grandfather did in fact have one of the headdresses because he was actually gifted it. And so that's why one of those is in my family, but that's not something that everybody in the tribe wears. Right?
So. It becomes like, no, wait, this is me. This is my family. This is not who we are. Right? There's no way that people would be okay if it was your family being caricatured and being embroidered on jerseys or painted on the sides of school buildings for other people to identify it with.
And you're not getting any benefits or anything like that. You're not being paid royalties or anything. Not that that's even not that that's even the case. I mean, I don't think people would really want that. I don't think that's what it means to like, make this cool. Right? It's just something that there's just no way that that can, it can be acceptable. But of course, it goes to the seal and motto as well.
Jess Stevens: I think it's super important to mention in these conversations, that it is everywhere in the sense of mascots and seals and mottos. Like it's not just the Massachusetts state seal. Even the conversation that we've been having, it kind of brings me back to my own town and where I'm from and the changing of their imagery and logos.
A lot of people didn't really seem to understand. So I think that there's definitely there's this gray area where people just don't know and they try to advocate for, “Oh, we don't mean it in an offensive way.” And I think that education is the root of that cause and why people don't understand why it isn't okay. And it shouldn't be okay.
Jean-Luc Pierite: We are in a situation here within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in which our youth are going to schools and they are learning about colonialism at a third or fourth-grade level. So if you can imagine a child going to school and having learning outcomes such as “Okay, point to a European nation, and now point to what we now call the United States, and now take with that same finger, take that finger and then trace the routes of ships going from Europe to the United States. And then explain to us at a third or fourth-grade level, why those ships went from Europe to what we now know as the United States.”
A lot of the history that gets picked up, actually, all the history that gets picked up as far as the United States, at the high school level, only starts from the American Revolution on. So 1776 on. There is a wide gap in critical thinking for youth when it comes to the impacts of slavery, the impacts of colonialism. Missing out on that 150 years you can see in that gap of analysis, that gap of knowledge, that that impacts how people leaving the public education system to navigate without being savvy about what are the roots of racial justice, what is the impact of having good government-to-government relationships with Indigenous nations.
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So we want to go through this public process to have the broader impact of having this wholly transparent conversation.Reconciling with the history, but then understanding how that history brought us to this point. And then, in forging a new symbol, how do we take the ideas of who we are now, and then imagine a better future and more sustainable future together.
Jess Stevens: So I just want to say, I appreciate this conversation.I really appreciate everything that you're saying. And it's inspiring to hear. Thank you.
Madeline Meyer: Yeah. Truly, thank you.
Jean-Luc Pierite: Thank you all for your work and contributions. I really hope that we can move this issue forward together.
Madeline Meyer: Thank you so much to Jean-Luc Pierite for all of his contributions and participation in this episode. You can find NAICOB at www.naicob.org. You can also follow them on social media @naicob on Facebook and @naicob91 on Twitter and Instagram.
To learn more about Jean-Luc's work, check out indigifab.org. You can find all of these links in the show notes.
This podcast was created by Madeline Meyer and Jess Stevens.
Graphics were designed by Madeline Meyer and Victoria Clark.
Alumni support from Michael Coleman.
And a special thank you to the LA+D faculty including Rick Rawlins, Katherine Shozawa, Heather Shaw, and Lisa Spitz.
Theme music from Blue Dot Sessions.
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Acknowledge + Listen
Beyond the Flag podcast accompanies a public art installation Acknowledge + Listen at the deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum this summer. The installation features a QR code that visitors can scan with their smartphones in order to listen to the podcast.