A language change
Objections to some blunt landmarks from 1704 Indian raid lead to editing
DEERFIELD -- Residents of this pristine postcard of a place take their history seriously. The French and Indian raid on English settlers here in 1704 is not just the stuff of textbooks, but it's also vivid lore, spoken of in rich detail by town dwellers in this Pioneer Valley spot that boasts one of New England's first museums.
Yet in the minds of some, the history etched in dozens of tablets, plaques and gravesites across the county is in need of change.
With this year marking the 300th anniversary of the raid, the local historical society -- which oversees many of the markers -- has taken to placing removable covers on memorials with language it considers offensive, such as references to ''savages" and ''Negro servants."
The coverings are cloth, shaded to mimic the swirls of the marble tablets and scripted with revised text. So where one marble tablet originally read, ''Mary, adopted by an Indian, was named Walahowey. She married a savage, and became one." The covering's text reads, ''She married a Kanien'kehaka and adopted the culture, customs and language of her new community in Kahnawake."
Not everyone is pleased with the revisions, calling it cultural sensitivity run amok.
One couple, Rose and James Matthews of Woodbury, Conn., wrote in a letter to the historical society, ''We condemn your attempt to create a warm and fuzzy feeling for our Colonial history because of political correctness or personal attitudes. What will you do next? . . . [claim] the hatchet marks were actually tooth marks made by tall mice seeking shelter from the cold?"
The question of whether to redress insensitive language enshrined in historical records has surfaced with increasing frequency in recent years, with varying approaches and solutions employed. Explanatory text has been placed next to an original at times.Changing the wording of a marker, historians said, is rare.
The best known instance is that of the obelisk marking the end of the Santa Fe Trail. An unidentified man in 1974 chiseled out the word ''savage" from the inscription, leaving an indentation in its place, which has been allowed to remain.
Generally, though, Dwight Pitcaithley, the chief historian of the National Park Service, said efforts have been made to leave historical markers intact -- even when deemed offensive by modern standards."A general policy is to respect them for what they are," Pitcaithley said.
Officials at Deerfield's local historical society said they have faced mounting pressure from Native Americans in recent years to revise historical markers commemorating the 1704 raid, long portrayed as an unprovoked attack on pioneers by marauding French and Native Americans.
The predawn assault left 50 English settlers dead. Another 112 were taken captive and marched to Canada in brutal winter conditions. Almost a third of the captives returned to New England, including the Rev. John Williams, who wrote an account of the raid that became a best-seller in Colonial times.
In fact, some say, a more accurate history reflects that the settlers helped incite the attack by snatching the land from the Native Americans -- a view not included in the nearly 40 memorial plaques and markers, known as ''blessings in the landscape." Many were erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries by descendants of the raid's victims.
The markers' new coverings, the historical society officials say, include the missing piece of the story.
''We're hoping to engage visitors in a dialogue about this history written in stone, and have them think about who wrote the words, whose history is being told and ultimately whose story is left out," said Suzanne Flynt, the curator of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association's Memorial Hall Museum. ''My view is that it's a first step."
Brian Deer, a resident of Canada and a member of the Mohawk tribe, who advised the historical society on the wording, said he is pleased with the outcome.
''You can't just wipe it, you have to update them," he said. ''Replacing them would border on political correctness and you really don't want to do that. So you leave it all there, and reword them to today's language."
But for some, the coverings amount to political correctness gone awry.
''The language of the time is part of the history, too," said Mary Beth Radke, a Deerfield resident. ''They shouldn't be covered up. Maybe they should be qualified, something put up nearby to say that the Native Americans had hardships too and reasons for doing what they did."
The matter of how to reflect colonial history has grown more complex of late across Massachusetts, born some say of a 1983 change in the law that gave Indian burial grounds new protections. That brought more Native Americans into the process of identifying and interpreting historical sites.
''We are being contacted by more and more local Native Americans who are descended from the native tribes that lived in Massachusetts when it was first settled," said Brona Simon, the state archaeologist. ''The people are really interested in filling the gaps in their history and making sure the history is accurate."
One case in point is Easthampton, where a dispute erupted in January over a planned memorial for an Indian attack 300 years earlier. A committee of the Easthampton Historical Society proposed the rededication of a marker and educational events on the site of the assault, but scrapped the plans after Native Americans complained that the presentations were one-sided.
In nearby Deerfield, officials planning commemorations of its 1704 raid were acutely aware of the Easthamption conflict, and had previously faced protest over the raid's portrayal -- in the form of red paint poured on the monuments at night.
As such, historical society officials say, they have taken pains to include Native Americans in their reinterpretation of the 1704 raid. In 1992, the museum added a stone to their Memorial Hall honoring the Pocumtucks, noting that in Deerfield they ''hunted, fished, and raised their families with a great understanding and respect for the land."
The cloth coverings -- so far placed on three marble plaques contained in the Memorial Hall Museum -- are another step in the process, according to Tim Neumann, the executive director of the historical society.
''Many people are of the mind that history is set in stone," Neumann said. ''The truth, with a capital ''T," is history is very hard to document."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.