Indians on Seals

A followup to a post from May: at least Waleska’s seal is not like that of Whitesboro, New York. This was making the rounds recently, along with demands to change it:

From the linked article in the Village Voice.

Wikipedia says that “the Whitesboro seal displays a wrestling match between founder Hugh White and a local Oneida chief,” and village officials themselves “maintain that the wrestling match was an important event in the village’s history and helped build relations between White and the area’s Native American population.”

But I suppose that showing White actually winning is not good form. His name probably doesn’t help things either.

This reminds me of a paper I wrote for the International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences in Quebec City in 2008. I called it “One Defends and the Other Conquers: Native Figures in North American Heraldry and Sigillography.”* I divided my collection into three categories: 1. emblems that express conquest of Natives by Europeans (or desire for or voluntary submission to such conquest), 2. emblems that express partnership between Natives and Europeans, and 3. emblems that use Natives as simple representatives of the New World. All three of these are dodgy by today’s standards, some more than others – human figures can be very expressive, and can be manipulated into expressing things that may or may not be true; they may also be seen as objectifying to the people in question and therefore bad as such.

The seal of Whitesboro clearly belongs in the first category. Other examples include the seal of Minnesota, showing a settler watching an Indian riding into the sunset, while his gun leans against the stump of a newly cut tree:

The seal of the brief Dominion of New England (1686-89):


The seal of the province of Georgia:

from Kenneth Coleman, ed., A History of Georgia (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 8.

And the chained Indian supporters of the arms of the infamous Lord Jeffery Amherst:

The Christian religion, with its universal imperative, inspired a number of hopeful emblems, such as the seal of the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel, showing natives flocking to the shore to hear a missionary preaching from a boat (cf. Mark 4.1), while believing that he was “coming to help us” (Acts 16.9):


The same sentiment is placed into the mouth of a native on the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:


(Speaking of this sort of thing, St. Louis University has recently removed a statue of Pierre-Jean De Smet, who was depicted as acting a little too self-confidently. I took this picture a couple of years ago:)

Author’s photograph (June 2013).

Much more palatable to current sensibilities is the second category, the idea of partnership between natives and Europeans, along the lines of the myth of the original American Thanksgiving, a coming-together of two distinct peoples to create a new and amicable political reality. The supporters of your average coat of arms can useful in this regard, viz. the arms of Toronto:

from Alan Beddoe, Beddoe’s Canadian Heraldry (Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing, 1981), 87

The arms of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan:

from Alan Beddoe, Beddoe’s Canadian Heraldry (Belleville, Ont.: Mika Publishing, 1981), 95

Or the arms of New York City:


If you have a seal, you can even show Natives and Europeans embracing, as on the seal of the Grand Lodge of Kansas:

Or the seal of Oklahoma Territory:

from Eugene Zieber, Heraldry in America (New York: Greenwich House, 1984), 171.

But although we are edified by these seals and coats of arms, do we risk putting a happy face on a potentially ugly political reality – like with the myth of Thanksgiving itself? The seal of the Oklahoma Territory is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of such things as the Dawes Act (whereby the federal government expropriated Indian land for white settlement) and the Land Runs that followed. New York City’s arms do not show the $24 worth of beads with which the Dutch famously bought Manhattan Island.

Then there’s the third category, whereby Natives simply represent the “New World,” in the same way that New World flora and fauna do. Often natives will be placed as supporters for the arms of colonies, or trading companies, such as the French East India Company:

The Scottish Darien Company:

From the blog of the Glasgow University Library.

The Dutch Society of Suriname:

The province of Newfoundland:


Or the province of Carolina, whose supporters were recycled in the arms of the senate of North Carolina in 2006:

Courtesy Clive Cheesman, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant.

Of course, such usage can be quite objectifying, especially when natives are placed as supporters of European enterprise. (A related issue: when European colonists adopted native symbolism to represent themselves in their dealings with the metropole. This controversial tradition continues in the use of Native American sports mascots like the Chicago Blackhawks or the Florida State Seminoles.)

But as I wrote in the paper:

Does all this mean that North Americans of European descent should abjure the use of Native figures in any sort of identifying symbols? Should the use of Natives be restricted to Natives alone? Admittedly this paper has been rather skeptical about the use of such figures by non-Natives, but I believe that they can still appear in heraldry, provided that designers employ a little wisdom and sensitivity. It is always best, of course, to be specific – rather than a generic “Indian,” a member of the band in question, dressed accurately for the given period (which should be specified in the blazon) – and only if the current leadership of the tribe gives its approval. Obviously the ideas of conquest, or desire or support for conquest, or the idea that Indians really represent white people, are not to be encouraged. But is the remaining idea, that of partnership, too much of a euphemism – does it paper over an unpleasant reality? Sometimes, perhaps, but not necessarily: the history of European-Native encounter is not one of continual oppression by the former over the latter. Many instances of genuine partnership may be enumerated: that of Brock and Tecumseh has already been mentioned; another is the alliance of Loyalists and Mohawks during the American war of independence, acknowledged in the crest of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association. Certainly, to return to the point made at the beginning of this paper, most places in North America have Native heritage – acknowledging that heritage is simply a matter of being honest.

* The title was taken from Nova Scotia’s motto, a translation of Munit Haec et Altera Vincit, referring to the supporters: