Official Government Seals and Their Painful Mythologies
We have been reviewing art in state capitols and the hidden stories of domination and conquest, and one of the interesting sub-genres are the artwork and mottoes on state seals.
A government seal is an important thing. It is an emblem, figure or symbol that tells the reader that this document is official and authentic. It says a lot about how a people (well, at least people in power) see themselves.
I was inspired to do a recap of official government seals when I saw a news item on the City Seal of Battle Creek, a Michigan town of about 52,000. From what I remember watching television as a kid, Battle Creek is where Kellogg’s Corn Flakes come from. The City motto doesn’t disappoint, it reads: “Breakfast Capital of the World.” The major images are a traditional Native man (with feathers), a surveyor mapping the land, a sail boat and a city skyline.
WMUK, Western Michigan University’s radio station, just ran an item on its webpage headlined: “Uncovering the Real Battle Creek City Seal.” It said the city seal you see above was adopted in 1981 for promotional purposes, something to use for things like city vehicles and public flyers. But it was never intended to replace the original seal — which shows a white surveyor clubbing a Native American. That’s still the official seal used for official business. But it seems city officials are embarrassed by it, because you can’t find the image on the city’s webpage. (Click here of the official seal, shown on a stained glass window.)
The official seal represents Battle Creek’s origin story — and how the city got its name. (The promotional seal is a sanitized version.) Here’s the HeritageBattleCreek version of the city’s founding story:
The story of white settlement of the Battle Creek area begins in 1825 when government surveyors were working near a stream about 8 miles northeast of the present city of Battle Creek. On March 14 two Potawatomi Indians appeared at the base camp, asking for food. A protracted, contentious discussion ended when the surveyors produced a rifle and settled the argument by subduing the Indians. After reporting the skirmish to the Territorial Governor, the surveyors left the field and returned to Detroit. A subsequent survey team remembered the incident and assigned the name “Battle Creek” to the stream where the altercation took place.
Too bad they couldn’t have just shared a bowl of cereal.
Next, here’s an update on the Village Seal of Whitesboro, New York. Like Battle Creek, this seal represents the village’s origin story. However, while the seal is supposed to tell the story of a friendly wrestling match between settler Hugh White and an Oneida Indian Chief, city leaders went with a design that looks like White is choking the man to death. (BTW, this is the image on the side of village police cars, not a great image.)
The Village recently had a non-binding vote — and in a low-turnout election they decided to keep their seal. That decision came under heavy national media sarcasm and scrutiny, including segments on the The Late Show and The Daily Show. Those seem to have had an impact. Whitesboro officials have now changed their minds. They have agreed to work with the Oneida Indian Nation on a new emblem, according to The New York Times.
OK, let’s move up the food chain to State Seals. Those that deal with Native Americans and our early history fall into two categories: 1) Those that represent a mythical history where Native Americans and settlers were equals and got along peacefully; and 2) Images and mottoes of Manifest Destiny that applaud the disappearance of Native Americans from the landscape.
The State Seals of Florida and Oklahoma fall into the first category of early harmony and hospitality.
The Florida State Seal gives the illusion that Native Americans were standing on the shore happily welcoming Europeans with flowers. However, when the Seal was created in 1868, many Native peoples already had been brutally driven from the land. The Florida Legislature adopted the following description of the Seal in 1868: “That a Seal … having in the center thereof a view of the sun’s rays over a high land in the distance, a cocoa tree, a steamboat on water, and an Indian female scattering flowers in the foreground, encircled by the words, ‘Great Seal of the State of Florida: In God We Trust’.”
The Oklahoma State Seal also paints a mythological picture of peace and prosperity between Native Americans and settlers. Here is a description of the seal from Wikipedia:
“Columbia is the central figure, representing justice and statehood. She is surrounded by an image of the American pioneer farmer on her right and the aboriginal American Indian on her left, both of whom are shaking hands beneath the scales of Justice, symbolizing equal justice between the Anglo and Native American races in Oklahoma and on the part of the federal government. Beneath the trio is the cornucopia of plenty and the olive branch of peace, and behind is the sun of progress and civilization.”
The symbols in the five points of the star represent the seals of the five civilized tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. (Some of these Native peoples were the very ones that were forced out of Florida during the Trail of Tears.)
Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, and North Dakota have State Seals with images or mottoes of Manifest Destiny.
The Connecticut State Seal features three grape vines. The state motto, written on a blue ribbon, reads: Qui transtulit sustinet. It is a powerful statement of Manifest Destiny. The phrase is Latin for He Who Transplanted Sustains. There are two versions of the motto’s history, according to Wikipedia. Here is one, provided by the State Librarian in 1889, who linked the phrase to a Psalm:
“The vines [on the State Seal] symbolize the Colony brought over and planted here in the wilderness. We read in the 80th Psalm: ‘Thou has brought a vine out of Egypt: Thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it” – in Latin, ‘Vineam de Aegypto transtulisti, ejicisti gentes et plantasti eam’; and the motto expresses our belief that He who brought over the vine continues to take care of it – Qui transtulit sustinet“.
Next we turn to Indiana’s State Seal, which appears on all the brass door knobs in the State Capitol. Wikipedia’s description of the Seal says: “The sun rising in the picture represents that Indiana has a bright future ahead and is just beginning. … The woodman represents civilization subduing the wilderness that was Indiana. The buffalo represents the wilderness fleeing westward away from the advancing civilization.”
This is quite similar to the Minnesota State Seal, which is more explicit in its message. Instead of using a buffalo as a metaphor for the westward movement of the uncivilized wilderness, the Minnesota State Seal shows the Native American fleeing westward on horseback, out of the picture. The industrious farmer already has cleared the land (note the stump). He is working the land, but has a gun at the ready in case of trouble.
The North Dakota State Seal has a similar theme, this time with both Indian and buffalo heading west. The Seal’s description is written into the North Dakota State Constitution, Article XI, Section 2, to include: “an Indian on horseback pursuing a buffalo toward the setting sun.”
The United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, notes that sentiment in the popular press at the time of statehood made it clear “that settlers heralded the removal of Native people and their way of life from the new state’s landscape.” As a closing digression, the United Tribes website reprinted a poem from the Fargo Argus from August 17, 1889, the year North Dakota became a state. It is a chilling reflection of the time, and a reflection of the sentiment imbedded in the State Seal. Here it is:
Sitting Bull is Matched
And so at last the treaty’s signed:
Though Sitting Bull has done his best
To thwart us in our grand design,
He could not quite control the rest,
For names enough are now attached,
And Sitting Bull for once is matched.
It won’t be very long before
Industrious whitemen till the ground
Where ages upon ages gone
The Indians have loafed around;
Nor bettered self nor bettered land,
Now let the pale face try his hand.
Our many people need the lands,
And these few people worked them not,
They’ll never use what they have left;
But are at best a shiftless lot,
And blessed indeed will be the day,
When every one shall pass away.