At the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, small shops modeled after those that lined the same wide street 275 years ago, recall the last time the Mashantucket Pequots rode a mishoon, or dugout canoe, along the Mystic River.
On Saturday, August 8, 12 paddlers from several eastern tribes launched a newly crafted, 36 foot long mishoon into the Mystic River. The mishoon’s first voyage took them past the massacre grounds where hundreds of Pequots were killed in 1637, and three miles up the Mystic River to Noank, the first reservation established for the Pequots in 1666.
Rodney Butler, Mashantucket Pequot chairman, said it was an important day for the tribe. “These are our historical lands. To paddle where our ancestors paddled, in their honor—it’s an incredible feeling; something you can’t describe.”
Butler said they would bless the lands at Noank, which the tribe held for only about 50 years. “The original reservation was 500 acres of direct waterfront. As the colonists settled in, they relocated us to the hills of Mashantucket, which is all swamp, steep rocky ledges and snakes.”
Mission: Mishoon was a project of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and evolved from conversations between Jonathan Perry, Aquinnah Wampanoag, and Jason Mancini, the museum’s director, who was hired to reopen the museum after it closed for a winter hiatus. When the museum reopened in May, Mancini made it his goal to bring the east coast tribes together. This project was a way to do that.
Perry teamed up with Darius Coombs, Aquinnah Wampanoag, to create the canoe. Between the two, they have made 80 mishoons.
Perry said the tree chosen by Mancini and his crew was 10 feet longer than he expected, “so it was a bigger project than we envisioned, but it worked out beautifully. It’s an impressive vessel.”
In order to create the dugout canoe, a low fire is kept lit by burning smaller pieces of hardwoods atop the tree while it’s laid on the ground. As the top of the dugout canoe turns to charcoal, the ash is continually scraped away with tools similar to those used historically. The new mishoon emerges from the charred remains and is shaped and polished to its final state. Perry said their challenges were minimal. “Mosquitos at night and bees during the day, broken tools,” he smiled, adding: “We burnt 28-hour day stints, from Friday afternoon until Saturday night, over four weekends. We were burning around the clock.”
Volunteers from other tribes were invited to participate, and Perry said, “We had community feasts with some tribal members traveling from hundreds of miles. We had great conversations in the wee hours of the night and shared a lot of great experiences. We strengthened our relationship and collaborations.”
Coombs, who has been burning mishoons for 30 years, believes they are important to the culture of coastal peoples. “They keep the tradition going, they keep who you are going. It gives the younger generation pride. But what gets me about this project is not just burning out the boat itself, it’s the boat seeing the water. Being part of this is something special.”
The launch had many meanings for those who participated in the burning and paddling. Leah Hopkins, Narragansett/Niantic, said for her, paddling with at least one person from every nation in Southern New England was important. “This is the uniting of nations. There are Wampanoags, Pequot, Narragansett, Shinnecock, Passamaquoddy, and more here. This is such a big project for the Mashantucket and for Native people in general.”
“Seeing the tribes come together was really great,” Mancini said. He believes the mishoon project will grow the visibility of the tribes and their history. “I think a lot people are unfamiliar with the rich cultural history of New England, and they forget there are Native people here. I wanted to draw attention to that.”
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Pequots traveled by mishoons to their 26 shoreline villages from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to Pawcatuck, Rhode Island. They also paddled to and from Long Island, a voyage of more than 30 miles. Recently, Shinnecock tribal members made that long trip.
Chanie Bullock, Shinnecock, has paddled across the Long Island Sound and with the Nipmucks from Deer Island to the Boston Harbor. Because of her experience, she was asked to sit in the front and steer the new canoe. At the end of the day, she said the only difficulty they faced was the wake from passing power boats and getting into a balanced rhythm among the paddlers.
At the end of Saturday’s six-mile trip, Perry said it was a powerful experience. “Our paddles in the water connects us to Mother Earth and our ancestors. We had a long period of time in New England where the tribes lost a lot. We were created at this time when there is a change of perception and respect of indigenous people. We have a long way to go, but if the fight is carried by all people, and no one tolerates the disrespect of the indigenous people who deserve to rest here for all of eternity, then we have a future and we will move forward.”