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Statues to hatchet-wielding colonist reconsidered

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A statue of Hannah Duston, dated 1879, stands in the Grand Army of the Republic Park, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Haverhill, Mass., meant to honor the English colonist who, legend has it, slaughtered her Native American captors after the gruesome killing of her baby. But the statue in Haverhill, and another of Duston in New Hampshire, are being reconsidered amid the nationwide reckoning on racism and controversial public monuments. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON – A pair of fierce monuments honor an English colonist who, legend has it, slaughtered her Native American captors after the gruesome killing of her baby.

But historians and Native Americans say the monuments to Hannah Duston obscure a grim truth: most of the Indigenous people she killed and scalped likely weren’t warriors who killed her baby, but instead were children.

The statues -- one in Massachusetts where Duston grips a hatchet and another in New Hampshire where she clutches a bundle of scalps — are being reconsidered amid the nationwide reckoning on racism and controversial public monuments.

Historians, Native Americans and even some of Duston’s descendants argue Duston's 17th century tale became propaganda for European colonists as they decimated New England’s Indigenous population.

They say it served the same purpose generations later as the new nation expanded west. The Duston monuments were built in the late 1800s, as U.S. forces battled Indigenous peoples and forcibly removed them from their ancestral lands.

“The savages and this pioneer mother who stands up to them,” Craig Richardson, a Duston descendant who is on a committee reviewing the New Hampshire memorial, said Thursday. "That's really what they're trying to depict."

In Massachusetts this week, the Haverhill City Council voted to keep the city's memorial but remove Duston's hatchet and update the statue's inscription, which tells her tale and calls Native Americans “savages.”

Mayor James Fiorentini said Thursday he supports the council's recommendations, including adding a new memorial to Native Americans near the site. He's formed a commission headed up by members of the Native American community to pursue the idea.