The Select Board voted to establish a committee to review the town seal and, if appropriate, amend or replace it.
This is no easy task.
The current seal depicts two English settlers receiving a deed to the land of Needham and Wellesley from Chief Nehoiden, the historical figure who has lent his name to roadways in Needham and surrounding towns. It is replete with historical and geographical inaccuracies.
“This is essentially our founding story,” said Gloria Greis, director of the Needham Historical Center and Museum. “The costume is wrong. The tipi is wrong.”
Native people in Massachusetts resided in a dome-shaped wetu usually made from wood, bark and reeds. The native person on the Needham seal is wearing clothing that would have been found in the Great Plains. The images of a river and mountain do not resemble the Charles River or the High Rock.
“The Charles is hardly the mighty Mississippi, and High Rock is not Mount McKinley,” Select Board member Kevin Keane said. Keane also pointed out that the water line is off by a few degrees.
Then, there’s the much thornier issue of the settlers’ interaction with Chief Nehoiden, the tribal leader who is speaking and gesturing in the image.
Many other towns and cities in Massachusetts have taken similar initiatives and are grappling with their town seals. Mayor Ruthanne Fuller of Newton established a working group in 2020 to revise the city’s seal. A 74-page report was released in 2022, but no further action has been taken. The group offered a hypothetical seal with no image chosen in the middle, but changes were offered to the text on the seal’s perimeter. It retained “liberty and union,” omitted the historically inaccurate reference to Nonantum, and added “founded in 1630 on Massachusett Land.”
A town seal is required by state law and is used to emboss official documents. In Needham, the image appears on town vehicles and in town properties such as the library and Memorial Field. At the state level, the Legislature established a panel to change the state seal in 2021. Efforts are stalled.
Among surrounding towns, only Natick has seen the process through to a conclusion. Its Town Seal Review Committee was established by Town Meeting in the fall of 2020, and in May 2023 it voted to accept a new design. A controversial image of settler/native relations was replaced with the Charles River flowing under the bridge at South Natick Falls.
Natick’s expedience may have been, in part, the result of dealing with a similar issue in 2007. After a long and emotional debate, the Natick School Committee voted 4-3 to stop calling its sports teams the Redmen.
Both Newton’s and Natick’s old seals depict John Eliot preaching Christianity to the indigenous people. That event took place two generations prior to the image on Needham’s seal.
Greis pointed out that the image of Needham’s seal is less offensive than some. “To its credit, there isn’t some of the whitesplaining that some of the other seals have,” she said. Needham’s current seal puts the actions of Nehoiden, not the settlers, at center stage.
“Nehoiden was a very complicated person,” said Keane. “After King Philip’s War, the crown wanted proper deeds to all colonial boundaries, and Nehoiden legitimized the whole thing.”
Nehoiden sold the land for 10 pounds in cash and 40 shillings of corn. He retained Hemlock Gorge for hunting and fishing. The deed was signed in 1681, five years after the conclusion of King Philip’s War, which left all of New England, especially the indigenous people, devastated.
“Chief Nehoiden is a really important person, and I would never want him off the seal,” said Keane of possible changes in Needham’s seal. “I have no problem with history being dirty, messy and conflicted.”
Greis pointed out that the seal was designed in 1898 at a time when the narrative about how the Native Americans helped us in early colonial days was much more simplistic.
“We swing between images of the natives being helpers, then they were savages, then they were children of nature,” she said. “At some point we have to look at our mutual history and say that they were human beings just like us.”
Keane said the redesign is also about taking control of an image that has both pixelated and varied in its reproduction through the generations. “There’s one seal with two peaks. There’s rumors that there’s a seal with three peaks,” he said.
The seal review committee will include a representative from the Massachusett Natick Praying Indians, Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick, a representative from the Select Board, Town Moderator Michael Fee or his designee, and an individual with visual design expertise. The committee will also include representatives from the Needham Council for Arts and Culture and the Human Rights Committee.