Haverhill lets Hannah Duston stay — Much-debated statue remains in park, but with changes

The statue of Hannah Duston in Haverhill’s GAR Park shows her holding a hatchet.

HAVERHILL — A task force is debating ideas for celebrating the history and heritage of the Indigenous people that lived and prospered in the pre-Columbian Merrimack Valley.

Mayor James Fiorentini said a tribute to Native Americans and their culture is “long overdue” and that he created the Native American Commemorative Task Force to determine the best way to honor the people who lived on the land now known as Haverhill and make certain their story is told.

Dan Speers, the chair of the group, said a memorial would serve to inspire this and future generations with the knowledge and confidence that while recognizing the inequities, stresses and sacrifices of the past, the goal is to foster cultural and ethnic unanimity.

He said the group, which held its first planning meeting Nov. 4, is also looking to provide an accurate historical perspective on what transpired and happened to Indigenous peoples following the arrival, disruption, and colonization by Europeans.

The statue of Hannah Duston, which has stood in GAR Park near City Hall for generations, has come under fire in recent years and has drawn criticism from a number of residents and Native Americans who consider the story it depicts an offence to Indigenous peoples.

“We’re not going to re-litigate the statue of Hannah Duston, we just want to find a way to move forward,” Speers said.

In April, and after several public meetings to discuss the possibility of moving the Duston statue to a less conspicuous location, the city council voted unanimously to leave it where it is and also voted to provide space for a memorial honoring Indigenous peoples.

During those discussions, concerns were raised about the wording on four bronze plaques mounted to the base of the statue depicting Duston’s ordeal as involving “savages,” a derogatory reference used to describe Native Americans during the time of Westward expansion.

“What we do has to be historically accurate, fresh, new, and exiting, so were bringing in various ideas,” Speers said. “The mayor has also committed city employees to assist in any alterations to be made, such as cleaning an area behind the bandstand and maybe holding a contest for artists and sculptors.”

The idea is for a memorial to reflect upon the colonization of the Merrimack Valley, starting with Haverhill, where the first settlers arrived and the subsequent sale of the land took place in 1642.

Speers said it was the first commercial transaction between the original inhabitants and the Europeans that was recorded in the Merrimack Valley and was the beginning of the industrialization of this area.

Depending on what funding is available, ideas for a memorial include a Native American “Talking Circle” or “Truth Circle” around the Hannah Duston statue in GAR Park along with a series of plaques with short candid histories. That cost estimate is between $1,000 and $1,500 each.

Renovating and updating the existing Duston statue, including the possible removal of the hatchet and replacing the existing plaques with plaques that describe the actual history of the period is also an option. Estimated cost for refurbishing statue comes in at $3,500. The cost of new plaques ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 each.

Speers said the group plans to ask the City Council to reserve space in a planned public park at the southern end of the Comeau Bridge for the creation of a memorial to Native Americans. He said the area was once an Abenaki village where Indigenous people fished for sturgeon.

The task force also agreed to eventually invite members of the creative community to submit their own designs for a memorial once the project is announced.

Speers said funding for the ideas being discussed would come from various sources, such as state and federal grants. As part of the City Council decision, councilors voted to ask the mayor to spend money needed to alter the Duston statue. Fiorentini said the city will pay for the project, but has not specified where the money will come from.

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