Will Hannah Duston statue stay or will she go?

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photoThe Hannah Duston statue in Haverhill’s GAR Park.

HAVERHILL — With Haverhill close to deciding the future of its much-debated Hannah Duston statue, two groups of city officials are split on the monument’s future.

They disagree on the two options — moving the statue from its prominent spot in GAR Park, as demanded by people who say it is offensive and celebrates violence, or leaving the monument in the park, the choice supported by traditionalists.

The statue, which has stood in GAR Park near City Hall for generations, depicts Hannah Duston, a Colonial woman who was kidnapped from this area by Native Americans in 1697, but escaped by killing them as they slept. The statue shows her carrying an ax and displays a plaque referring to Native Americans as “savages.’’

Two groups of city officials — the Historical Commission and a committee of city councilors — will give recommendations to Mayor James Fiorentini and the entire City Council, who will then make the final decision on the statue’s fate.

As the national debate rages over racism and the depiction of historical figures, some members of the Haverhill community say the statue is offensive to Native Americans and embraces violence. They suggest it should be moved from its prominent location to a spot where it can be preserved for its historical value.

Other community members say the statue should remain where it is, perhaps with the city removing the reference to Native Americans as “savages’’ and adding more information to explain the statue’s history.

The Historical Commission and the group of city councilors — members of the council’s Natural Resources and Public Property Committee — have been meeting to receive public comment from people on both sides of the argument.

Four members of the six-member Historical Commission have said they support moving the statue to a less prominent location and adding historical information. The commission is expected to vote on its recommendation this week, and then bring that recommendation to the full City Council.

Two of the three city councilors preparing a recommendation on the statue’s future say they want it to remain in its current location. Those councilors are Thomas Sullivan and Joseph Bevilacqua.

Bevilaqua recommended keeping the statue where it is, but also said he would have no objection to setting aside a section of GAR Park for Native Americans to tell their story.

“We’re not going to solve the story of colonization in America ... but we can do what’s right for the city and that’s not to erase its history, but to add to it and learn from it,” he said.

Although Sullivan supports leaving the statue where it is, he said all options are open.

“We will try to continue working together and allow all voices to be heard,” he said.

Councilor Colin LePage said he is leaning toward moving the statue, as recommended by most members of the Historical Commission.

During a recent combined meeting of those city councilors and the Historical Commission, members of the public supporting both possible outcomes voiced their opinions.

The statue showing Duston holding an ax was erected in GAR Park in 1879, five years after a similar statue in her memory was erected in Boscawen, New Hampshire, at the site of her escape from captivity.

Diane Dustin Itasaka, a direct descendant of Hannah Duston and president of the Duston Garrison House Association, recommended adding historical context to the statue and creating a more educational experience for the public.

“It just seems the best place for her statue to be,” she said about its location in GAR Park.

David Dustin of Contoocook, New Hampshire, secretary of the Duston-Dustin Association, said elements of the statue in GAR Park reflect the popular conventions and prejudices of the statue’s time, but fail to provide proper context for injustices inherent in the European colonization of the area we now know as New England.

He said the Dustin-Duston Association is working with representatives of the Abenaki Nation of Native Americans, university professors, and New Hampshire officials to come up with ways of modifying the memorial in Boscawen. He said the goal is to communicate the experience of indigenous people during European colonization, while fairly reflecting the experience of a “brave daughter of Haverhill.”

“We would welcome a similar opportunity regarding the future of the Hannah Duston statue here in GAR Park, which we hope will continue to serve as an emblem of the complex history of this frontier community during the Colonial period,” he said.

Suzie O’Bamsawin, a representative of the Abenaki Nation, said the question is whether the debate over the statue will help everyone involved better understand each other.

“I’m not feeling comfortable saying we are for the removal of the statue, although I think it has to be said,” she said, noting the Abenaki Nation is still active. “When I hear stories like we killed people, it was both ways. It was a time when we were being pushed away from our homelands. We have to keep that in perspective and try to work together.” 

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