There are those who will roll their eyes when they read this week’s story about the Harwich town seal, which portrays a Native American standing next to a Great Plains-style teepee, rather than the traditional wetu dwelling used by Wampanoags. It’s admittedly a small detail, but it’s not inconsequential.
We choose to believe that Harwich residents 123 years ago included a Native American on their new town seal as a gesture of reverence and appreciation for the town’s first inhabitants, the Wampanoags. That was a bold statement in 1897, when Native Americans didn’t even enjoy citizenship in the nation that occupied their lands. Conflicts with Indians were still common; the massacre at Wounded Knee, on the heels of the death of Sitting Bull, had happened just seven years earlier. In contrast, the scene chosen for the Harwich seal was placid and peaceful.
The choice of a teepee instead of a wetu for the town seal was most likely just a product of cultural ignorance. But it’s an error that’s worth correcting, if only to uphold the original intent to honor the Wampanoags who lived here. It’s not about political correctness; it’s about historical accuracy and avoiding cultural appropriation.
We encourage the town to consider appointing a working group with one or more representatives from the Wampanoag community. The group would be charged with reviewing solely that portion of the town seal that portrays the Native American and his dwelling, and would bring its recommendation to selectmen for ratification. A suitable artist should be recruited to revise the seal, which would then be brought to town meeting for approval. The effort could be largely led by volunteers, and the corrected seal could be put in use when existing signs, flags and stamps are due for replacement.
For short money, Harwich can – and should – make a meaningful gesture of respect to the People of the First Light.