Abenaki leaders, Duston descendants gather on N.H.'s Hannah Duston island for first in-person state advisory committee meeting
Despite the land’s bloody past, talk between Abenaki tribe leaders and descendants of Hannah Duston was friendly and productive this week under the watchful, granite eyes of Duston herself.
“We want to be one of the first parks in the country that shows we can work together and we can create an inclusive environment,” Denise Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People said Wednesday. “We want an inclusive environment even after something as horrific as what happened. Time can move forward. We don’t live there anymore.”
The Hannah Duston Advisory Committee was formed last summer to assist the state Bureau of Historic Sites in interpreting or altering the monument to the controversial 17th century New Hampshire woman.
Duston, a white settler famed for killing and scalping ten Native Americans who had captured her during King William’s War in 1697, has been the subject of widespread debate for decades.
A memorial to Duston stands 25-feet-tall on the small island where the Contoocook and Merrimack Rivers meet — and where it is thought that she led two fellow captives in the killing and scalping of ten Abenaki people, six of them children.
The committee’s most recent meeting — its first in-person gathering after meeting virtually for nearly a year — focused on planning a multi-year project to create an educational park where community members can picnic, kayak and canoe, and learn more about the site’s history.
Among the committee members are Denise and her husband Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, Craig Richardson and David A. Dustin of the Duston-Dustin Family Association, representatives from the town of Boscawen, and state park officials.
Over the past year, the committee has been working together to envision the island’s future: a replacement state historic marker “to reflect a more nuanced version of the raid and massacre,” a new name more inclusive than the current “Hannah Duston Historic Site”, and interpretive signage that explains the park’s complex history.
Early, tentative subject ideas for the signage includes the Abenaki people, the legend of Hannah Duston, colonial era context such as the history of King William’s War, Merrimack and Contoocook River ecology, and the advisory committee’s process — including its decision to preserve the statue.
The Pouliots, who go by the tribal titles Sag8moskwa and Sag8mo or lead female and male speakers, highlighted their ultimate goal to create art pieces to honor the Abenaki who were killed.
“We envision some kind of monument to the Abenaki that were involved in this incident. We have funders, but we just don’t know where it’s going to go,” Paul Pouliot said. “The investors want to know exactly what’s going to happen, and we don’t seem to have that clarity yet.”
Duston’s descendants were open to a new dedication to honor the Native Americans.
“We don’t think there would be a big objection to something that fairly rebalances the discussion,” said David Dustin, speaking on behalf of the association of family members.
While project ideas are abundant, committee members quickly decided their next step is to reach out to additional players before they can get the ball rolling on a site plan.
The island is split between three landowners — the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the state Department of Transportation, and the town of Boscawen — making the project a confusing bureaucratic process, on top of the fact that the island is split by a railway.
The committee had quickly retreated from the summer sun Wednesday to a small patch of shade several yards from the statue, the figure left looking ahead from a distance with a serene expression. Duston is feminine and elegant, yet she holds a tomahawk in one hand and ten scalps in the other.
Her nose is badly chipped where it was thought to be shot off, replaced, and shot off again years ago. Red vinyl paint stains have remained splattered across the monument since last May, despite hours of scrubbing by state parks department employees.
Erected in 1874, the memorial is the first publicly-funded statue in New Hampshire, and is also known as the first statue in America dedicated to a woman.
The advisory committee’s formation last summer came amid growing scrutiny of long-venerated figures in American history, a movement in part ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the racial reckoning that followed. As eyes nationwide turned to monuments of leaders and pioneers like Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus, Granite Staters looked to Hannah Duston.
After the memorial was splattered with the red paint — one of many defacements to the statue over the years — Denise Pouliot and two university professors who now sit on the committee took a proposal to form the advisory group to the state. Andrew Cushing, the director of the Bureau of Historic Sites, agreed to chair the discussions.
“I’ve been really impressed and really pleased with the baseline understanding that we’re going to tell a full history,” Cushing said.
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