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Region's tribes advocate for John Mason statue's removal from State Capitol

Hartford — For some, John Mason’s legacy and whether he ought to be honored for it is complicated. 

But not for southeastern Connecticut Indian tribes, whose leaders Thursday were unequivocal in their belief that a 111-year-old likeness of the 17th century English commander who led forces against the Pequots in the bloody Pequot War should be removed from the State Capitol’s exterior. 

Mason was, by any modern standard, a war criminal, said Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket Pequot chairman. 

Butler delivered a recorded message shown on a large screen in a hearing room at the Legislative Office Building, where the State Capitol Preservation and Restoration Commission conducted an invitational forum, “An Airing of Perspectives on Captain John Mason and Whether His Statue Should Remain in Its Place at the State Capitol.” 

“I’m not here to erase history ... but to help put it into a more comprehensive context ... that reflects the values we have come to embrace,” Butler said.

Noting the concept of war crimes wasn’t recognized until the late 1800s, Butler identified eight criteria that define the term, including willful killing, torture, extensive destruction of property without military justification, unlawful deportation or confinement, and the taking of hostages. 

“I invite you to watch any short clip on YouTube that describes the Pequot Massacre of 1637,” Butler said. “I ask you to put aside any preconceived notions you might have about this issue and evaluate what is described in the context of war crimes as I just defined (them). There’s no doubt Mason engaged in what we now call genocide."

“The question for us here in the year 2021," he continued, "is whether a man who burned alive over 500 men, women and children, systematically hunted and slaughtered any remaining members of the tribe and attempted to eradicate an entire cultural identity and heritage deserves a place of distinction on the face of the Connecticut State Capitol.”

The commission, charged with making a recommendation to the legislature, could decide on that recommendation when it meets Dec. 14, the panel's chairman, Emil "Buddy" Altobello, said.

Walter Woodward, the Connecticut state historian and an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, had opened the forum via Zoom, appearing on the large screen. He said removing the Mason statue from the Capitol’s façade would reduce the Pequot War to a story of "good guys and bad guys." 

“Today, Mason stands as both anti-hero and symbol,” Woodward said, “a ruthless villain unworthy of honor. I think there’s value in history that interrogates both these perspectives — not at a poorly attended museum but here at the hub of state government.”

The Old State House in Hartford has been suggested as an alternative location for the statue.  

State Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat who submitted a bill seeking the statue’s removal in the last legislative session and who was appointed to the commission last month, differed with Woodward, saying she didn’t see how leaving the statue in place would do anything to eradicate lingering prejudice against tribes.

“I find people still hold remnants of John Mason’s attitude,” she said. 

Also advocating for the statue’s removal were Mitchel Ray, the Eastern Pequot Tribe’s newly elected chairman; Ron “Wolf” Jackson, an Eastern Pequot who led a 1990s campaign that succeeded in getting a different Mason statue relocated from Mystic to Windsor; three other members of the Mashantucket Pequots — Daniel Menihan Jr., a tribal councilor; Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, chairwoman of the tribe’s elders’ council; and Shirley Patrick, the elders' council's vice chairwoman — and Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe.

Malerba, whose message was recorded, acknowledged the Mohegan and Narragansett tribes had sided with the English during the Pequot War. She said they were “wholly unprepared” for the violence that ensued, however, and condemned the slaughter of women, children and elders. She said her tribe endorsed efforts to have the Mason statue relocated from the State Capitol to a museum. 

Menihan said some historical accounts of the Mystic massacre have mistakenly portrayed the Pequots as aggressors. He said the lack of “Native voices” in such accounts is a problem in general. 

Ann Burton of the National Society of Colonial Dames in America, a Wethersfield-based historical society, and Kevin McBride, an anthropology professor at UConn and an expert on the Pequot War, said more historical research needs to be done to fully understand what McBride called “this seminal event in Connecticut history.” 

Marcus Mason Maronn, a John Mason descendant who recalled the controversy over the relocation of the Mason statue from Mystic to Windsor, said feelings and perceptions never change. He called the Mystic statue’s relocation “a win-win scenario,” suggesting it should have put the matter to rest. He said “falsehoods” surround popular accounts of the Mystic massacre.

The tribes’ position got a boost from UConn history professor Manisha Sinha, an expert on the Civil War and slavery, who has advocated in recent years for the removal of statues commemorating Confederate generals. She said statues do not preserve history but rather commemorate certain people, and Mason’s role in the massacre of women, children and “noncombatants” cannot be excused.

As a historian, she said she completely endorsed the viewpoints of the tribal leaders who spoke at the forum.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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