Why Just ‘Adding Context’ to Controversial Monuments May Not Change MindsRoundup
tags: Confederacy, monuments, public history
Erin L. Thompson is a professor studying the relationships between art and crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). Her forthcoming book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments (Norton 2021) looks at the history of protests against controversial monuments.
In 1697, Native American raiders, probably from the Abenaki people, took English colonist Hannah Duston, 40 years old at the time, and her newborn daughter captive. A month later, Hannah rode back into Haverhill, Massachusetts, on a stolen canoe carrying a bag full of scalps. Hannah’s daughter had died or been killed, and Hannah herself had escaped after leading a plan, with her Abenaki nursemaid and a fellow English prisoner, to kill their four adult captors— and their six children. Shown the scalps as proof of Duston’s deeds, Massachusetts voted to give her a reward of 25 pounds.
If you visit the tiny, uninhabited island in New Hampshire where Duston is thought to have freed herself, you will find what is probably America’s very first monument celebrating a woman. Constructed in 1874, this marble monument shows her in a flowing nightdress. In her right hand is a hatchet. In her left hand, looking like a fading bouquet of drooping poppies, are the scalps, little curled pucks of skin gathered together by their hair. The accompanying historical marker sign calls Duston a “famous symbol of frontier heroism.”
Not everyone agrees, and the New Hampshire statue bears the marks of these disputes. It has been shot in the face at least twice and is still missing its nose. Its marble bears ghostly outlines of scrubbed-off graffiti. Another portrait statue of Duston in Massachusetts has also been repeatedly vandalized. Most recently, in July 2020, someone chalked “Haverhill’s own monument to genocide” on its base.
“Through Indigenous eyes,” Denise K. Pouliot, the Sag8moskwa (female spokesperson) of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people told me, “we see a statue honoring a murderer.” After someone splashed red paint over the New Hampshire statue in May 2020, the state’s Division of Historical Resources started reconsidering the site’s future. Now, the Cowasuck Band is working with New Hampshire officials, historians, and some of Duston’s descendants to change the site by adding signage and other monuments, hoping to let visitors to make up their own minds about Duston. Is she a heroic victim of violence or a participant in the devastating effects of European settlement in New England, whose Native American tribes had lost an estimated 60 to 80 percent of their population in the 20 years preceding Duston’s kidnapping—or both?
Dozens of monuments have been toppled or removed from public view in recent months, as protestors point out how they, like Duston’s statue, leave out important aspects of history. But people on all sides of these debates have been arguing that removal isn’t necessary. Instead, we can just add signage to remind viewers of the history and people left out by the monuments.
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