DURHAM — Interpretive text may soon be added to a controversial mural at the Durham Post Office to give it historical context, but a group representing Native Americans still say that is not enough.
The mural was questioned last year by Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood of the Waysmeet Center at the University of New Hampshire. Brickner-Wood said at the time that he has always felt uneasy about what is depicted in the panel “Cruel Adversity,” which shows a Native American preparing to torch a settler’s home.
According to a decades-old brochure about the 16-panel mural, it was commissioned by the Women’s Club of Durham in 1959 and painted by artist Bernard Chapman. The goal was to reflect the history of the town, and the panel is meant to depict the Oyster River Massacre of 1694, where five garrison-style homes and 15 dwellings were burned. It is believed 100 people were killed or carried off.
Last week, during a meeting with town officials, members of the New Hampshire Commission of Native American Affairs, a representative from the New Hampshire Division of Cultural Affairs and a representative from the United States Postal Service (USPS), the idea of installing interpretive text on the wall was brought up. The USPS has a policy that it does not remove or cover historic artwork, and it does not allow new artwork to be added, according to town administrator Todd Selig.
The interpretive text, which describes each panel, says that “Cruel Adversity” shows a Native American poised to attack a garrison.
“Settlers constructed fortified wooden structures, called garrisons or blockhouses, for use as protection during attacks,” the text says, and then refers people to four paragraphs at the bottom.
Those paragraphs start by saying that Native Americans lived in present-day New Hampshire for countless generations before the arrival of Europeans.
“They were commonly called the Wabanaki, or “people of the dawn,’” the text states.
The second paragraph describes how in the warm part of the year the tribes would live in villages along rivers and lakes where they farmed and fished. In the colder weather, the Native Americans broke into smaller family groups to hunt, the text says.
The third paragraph describes the arrival of colonists and the disputes over land use, and escalated tensions because of “profound cultural and language barriers.”
In the fourth paragraph, an event in 1676 is referenced before the Oyster River Massacre of 1694. The text says that Major Richard Waldron of Dover called for a peace conference with local Wabanaki.
“Hundreds answered his call — he arrested them all. About 200 Indians were sent to Boston; some were executed, while others were enslaved. Waldron’s treachery fueled the cycle of attack and reprisal,” the text says.
Selig said the conversation about the proposed interpretive text did not get very far with members of the Commission on Native American Affairs. They still want the mural removed or covered, despite the fact that officials from the USPS have informed them three times that it is against their policies.
When reached for more information on the commission’s perspective Monday, chairman Al Gauvin did not want to talk to the press.
“I have no comment,” Gauvin said before hanging up the phone.
Selig said in addition to the discussion on the mural, town officials and commission members talked about the request of minister emeritus Neal Ferris to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Members of the commission do not support the celebration of explorer Christopher Columbus because of the way he treated natives, Selig said.