Duston made history in 1697 when she escaped from Abenaki Indians who had kidnapped her and killed her infant daughter by bashing the child's head against a tree. Duston escaped from an island in the middle of the Merrimack River near Concord, N.H., two weeks later by killing and scalping as many as 10 of her captors.
Posters advertising yesterday's "Haverhill Rocks!" music festival contained the image of her statue holding an electric guitar. The posters sparked controversy and curiosity in recent weeks - so much so that the concert's promoters proposed Haverhill declare an official Hannah Duston Day.
Chief Nancy Lyons of the Coasek tribe of the traditional Abenaki Nation, said using Duston as a promotional tool not only insults American Indians but glorifies violence.
"It's not so much because Hannah Duston killed Indians. The biggest issue that I find absolutely appalling is that the promotion that they're doing is extremely racist - it's emphasizing violence and they're promoting that to young people," Lyons said. "More than being an Indian, being a mother I find it absolutely appalling that a community would promote violence and a violent act in a racist manner to young people today."
Charles True, speaker of the Abenaki Nation of New Hampshire, said Duston has become a folk legend over the years and her legend bears little resemblance to the actual events of 1697.
"Folk legends rarely represent the actual truth about things," True said. "In New England history books, our people have not had a fair shake. We were victimized very cruelly by New England people. ... It makes you wonder why history books for schoolchildren over the years have made us out to be blood-thirsty savages. Haverhill can do what it pleases with its folk hero. We're not interested."
Constantine Valhouli, principal of a Bradford company that specializes in revitalizing historical urban centers, helped promote yesterday's music festival and is a proponent of declaring an official Hannah Duston Day in Haverhill. Valhouli said he envisions the day as a chance for the city to learn about its history with an eye to reconciling the settlers' version of the Duston story with the Abenaki view of her legacy.
"If we do this right, we actually have a chance to really explore how history is interpreted without drawing any value judgments," Valhouli said. "Haverhill's Colonial history might be best explored as a way for future generations to really learn. It's a teaching tool. If we approach it that way, Haverhill becomes a place where tolerance is increased."
Margaret Bruchak, an Abenaki historian, said in order to properly understand the Duston story, it's important to understand the Abenaki culture's view of combat and captivity.
"The whole point of taking a captive was to then transport that person safely. For the whole of that journey they were treated like family," Bruchak said. "When captives were taken, they were almost immediately handed off from the warriors to individuals who would then look after them. Hannah, we know for a fact, was handed over to an extended family group of two adult men, three women, seven children and one white child."
That's why the Abenaki viewed Duston's actions after she escaped with such horror, she said.
"It's almost like the Geneva Conventions, when you think about it. Hannah betrayed the Abenaki Geneva Conventions. It wasn't while she was in the midst of warfare that she did these supposedly brave acts. It was while she was in the care of a family," Bruchak said. "If she had merely escaped, there probably would be very little story to tell, but the fact that she escaped, then stopped and went back to collect scalps - the bloody-mindedness of it is really quite remarkable. ...
"She became a hero because of it. The Colonial Puritan society which saw the killing of white children as an unpardonable sin that required the death penalty saw the killing of Indian children as a glorious act that turns someone into a hero," she said.
The decision to declare an official Hannah Duston Day rests with Mayor James Fiorentini, who did not return calls seeking comment.
BOX: According to historical accounts:
* On March 15, 1697, Hannah Duston and some 39 settlers in Haverhill were attacked by the Abenaki Indians. The Indians kidnapped Duston and killed her baby daughter by bashing the child's head against a tree. About a half-dozen local homes were burned in the raid.
* Duston was held with several others on an island at the confluence of the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers near Concord, N.H. Duston was with her nursemaid, Mary Neff, and a boy named Samuel Leonardson, who had been captured in Worcester the year before.
* On the night of March 30, the trio escaped. Before leaving, they killed and scalped 10 Indians (men, women and children) as they slept, using hatchets they had stolen from the Indians. They scuttled all the canoes except one, which they used to paddle downriver through the night.
* An American Indian woman and boy who escaped Duston's hatchet alerted another Indian party to her escape. But by that time, Duston was headed back to Haverhill.
* At daybreak, the trio spent the first day in Nashua; then the next night they paddled to Haverhill. Duston recognized Bradley's Mill on the Merrimack River, where there is now a millstone commemorating the spot where the three landed.
* Upon her return, Duston received 50 pounds from a government official in charge of the province for the Indian scalps, plus "gifts and congratulations from private friends," according to "The History of Haverhill, Massachusetts" by George Wingate Chase.
* Duston is believed to be the first woman in U.S. history to have a statue erected in her honor - in 1879 in a park near Main Street. Her story has been immortalized in accounts by famous authors such as Cotton Mather and Henry David Thoreau.