Ray Duckler: To some, a new tribute to Native Americans belongs out front
NHTI history professor Tom Wallace (left), NHTI president Lynn Kilchenstein, and Student Senate president Megan Spiltoir unveil a New Hampshire Historical Marker on the NHTI campus in Concord on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. The marker recognizes the Pennacook tribal group, who lived in the region before white settlers arrived in New England in the 1620s.
(WILL PARSON / Monitor staff)
Liz Charlebois stood proudly near the historic marker unveiled yesterday at NHTI.
A Native American, Charlebois hopes the tribute to her ancestors will add balance to the discussion involving the monument 5 miles away, down a narrow path off Route 4 in Boscawen.
“I was very interested, which is why I’m here,” said Charlebois, a student at NHTI and a descendant of the Missisquoi Abenaki tribal group. “I was curious to see what it says. It’s a really good gesture by the school because there is a lot of controversy about things like the Hannah Duston Memorial.”
Mention Hannah Duston around here, and prepare for an argument over her place in history. A massive likeness of the puritan mother, built in 1874 on a huge granite foundation, stands on an island between the Merrimack and Contoocook rivers.
It’s a chilling portrait of a woman with a hatchet in her right hand, scalps from the people she killed in her left. The statue represents courage, erected to commemorate Duston’s escape after she was abducted, her baby killed, during a raid in Haverhill, Mass., in 1697.
But Duston’s detractors wonder how courageous she really was, given that she killed women and children, a fact omitted from the story that accompanied the building of her statue.
The marker dedicated yesterday makes no mention of Duston, instead honoring those who farmed and fished throughout New England and Quebec thousands of years ago.
Charlebois and others say the words and gesture itself have a soothing effect, an important addition to counter the nearby tribute that is steeped in violence.
“We barely mention Native Americans, and when we do it’s in the light of conflict,” said Stu Wallace, a history professor at NHTI. “Hopefully this will give recognition for this site, which was a central village site for natives for thousands of years. It talks about them as real people, not just warriors.”
Wallace helped facilitate the idea, created by the school’s student senate more than a year ago. In fact, the project is the brainchild of the former senate president, who has since graduated.
Wallace, a longtime state historian, wrote the passages for the landmark, beginning with, “When Europeans settled in New England in the 1620s, the largest Native American tribal group in the future state of New Hampshire used the flat lands at the bends of the Merrimack River in present Concord for their central village.”
Next, the writing had to be checked for accuracy by the State Division of Historical Resources, state archaeologist Dick Boisvert and a representative of the Native American community, in this case Paul Pouliot, the council chief and speaker for the Pennacook Abenaki people.
Megan Spiltoir is the current NHTI student senate president. She inherited the vision from her predecessor and said it’s been a learning process.
“I didn’t know anything about these people before this,” Spiltoir said. “It’s great that the recognition is in the form of an historical marker.”
Added NHTI President Lynn Kilchenstein, “I don’t know how many markers connected to Native Americans are around the state, but they’re all violent. That’s what people think about, and they don’t think that people lived here and had lives. That’s the idea behind this.”
Which is fine with people like Pouliot, who complains that politicians have trouble even acknowledging that Pennacook Abenaki people remain here to this day, centuries after colonists settled the area.
Further, he says Duston was kidnapped by Abenaki warriors, then moved north to present-day Boscawen by a family looking to bolster their people’s bloodline.
A crime? Sure.
But, Pouliot says, more context is needed.
“She was being taken to Canada, not to be killed but to be integrated into a tribal family,” Pouliot said. “She killed kids and women, and collected a bounty on the scalps. If you knew the whole story, the facts would not portray her in such a good light. She wasn’t under any fret at that point.”
Said Charlebois, “Most of the people who were killed were women and children, and they were killed in their sleep. We will never know with 100 percent accuracy what happened, however, I feel that she has been overpublicized and it is time for Hannah to be in the past.”
Yesterday’s ceremony will help that happen. At least that’s what people like Charlebois, Pouliot and Wallace hope.
They believe the tribute to Duston was simply a way to justify the country’s treatment of Native Americans, and that it glorifies violence to an extreme.
These days, the statue is more of a gathering point for underage partiers than an historic site. Duston’s nose is broken off, and there is graffiti on the base. The sound of squirrels running across dead branches mixes with the faint hum of cars on Route 4.
Meanwhile, the tribute to the historic natives of Concord and surrounding areas is alive with campus activity, its crisp green background and white lettering suggesting a new landmark, as well as a new attitude.
“This was not a controversial marker, and I had no objections to what was written,” Pouliot said. “But the memorial is run down, and you know what? If people start worshipping that and try to improve it, then I think it becomes an insult.
“Let time do its thing.”