Burn, scrape and shape: Dugout canoe to be built at Pocumtuck Festival

  • Mashpee Wampanoag Phillip Wynne of Sagamore pours water to control fire and temperatures while making a mishoon from a tree at the Wampanoag Homesite at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth. ​​​​​ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Lee makes a Mukok, a kind of traditional Native American basket, out of ashbark at a previous Pocumtuck Homelands Festival. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Iawentas Nanticoke, Theresa “Bear” Fox and Elizabeth Nanticoke lead others in a circle dance at a previous festival. ​​​STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Kelvin Mockingbird, Navaho/Dine, plays the flute by the waterside during last year’s festival. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Chief Don Stevens and the Nulhegan-Coosuk Band of the Abenaki Singers perform a drum song at a previous festival. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Jennifer Lee, a Plainfield resident of Narragansett and Pequot ancestry, makes a white pine bark mokok basket in front of an eastern conical wigwam during last year’s festival. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Lee, right, makes a white pine bark mokok basket in front of an eastern conical wigwam during last year’s festival. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2019 7:00:25 AM
Modified: 8/1/2019 7:00:14 AM

The first step to creating a mishoon, or dugout canoe, is to find the right tree.

That’s exactly what organizers of the 6th annual Pocumtuck Homelands Festival have done, and the weekend celebration will highlight a traditional mishoon of the indigenous people of the Northeast on Saturday and Sunday at Unity Park.

The 18-foot-long white pine is currently at Bear Hill Sawmill and Millwork in Belchertown, according to David Brule, one of the festival’s organizers and the lead for the mishoon project. He said it is awaiting transport, eventually to Unity Park, where the four-person team of Jonathan Perry of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and three crew members will use fire to burn into the widest point of the tree and create the type of canoe that was used by Native Americans as early as the 17th century.

“This is so special and so important,” festival organizer Diane Dix said. “Festival goers this year will witness the formation of a fine tradition. They dug out canoes for the first time hundreds of years ago, so this is a big deal.”

A mishoon, the Wampanoag word for boat or canoe, was the most common boat in North American waters in the 1600s, according to Brule, a member of the Nolumbeka Project, which is sponsoring the event. Some were capable of carrying up to 40 men. 

According to Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, mishoons were burned 24 hours a day, since the longer the fire was maintained, the hotter it got. The burned area was then scraped and shaped. Sometimes it took more than a week to create one.

Brule said this tree, which is 40 feet in diameter, will take about 54 to 55 hours to burn. He said Bryan Camden, manager of Turners Falls Airport, and he will pick the tree up Thursday and keep it at the airport until Friday. It will then be transported to the shore of the Connecticut River at Unity Park at the end of the bike trail.

“They’ll use an adze, an ax-like tool, to scrape and care the tree as it burns,” Brule said. “People will be able to watch the process all weekend long.”

Brule said Perry has made many mishoons, so people should learn a lot. He said they will be able to not only watch, but ask the team questions.

“To make a mishoon, Native Americans used fire to burn the tree,” he said. “Then, they blew oxygen to keep it going and hot. Then, they scraped the inside and shaped it until it was hollow.”

The festival, a celebration of Native American art, music and cultures runs both Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., though heavy rain will force the festival to move to the Discovery Center on Avenue A.

Brule said the festival costs between $18,000 and $20,000. He said it received funding from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

“We got about $8,000,” he said. “Most of that went toward the mishoon project.”

Other attractions

Dix said Kerri Helme, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and cultural programs manager for Plimoth Plantation, will help children make corn husk dolls, which they will take home with them. There will be two one-hour sessions each day.

She said there will also be performances each day by Joseph and Jesse Bruchac. Their program will be a combination of traditional stories and songs, with the accompaniment of hand drums, flutes and rattles. The focus will be on honoring and calling attention to the living waters of Ndakinna that have carried and supported their people, the Abenaki, for centuries. 

Joseph Bruchac lives in the Adirondack Mountains of New York in the house where his grandparents raised him. He is a member of the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation. Much of his work draws on his Native ancestry. He is the author of more than 160 books for young readers and adults, and he has taught in Ghana and other places. He is a featured storyteller at numerous festivals.

Bruchac has worked extensively for more than 20 years on projects involving the preservation of Abenaki language, storytelling, music and traditional culture. He created the Abenaki language site: www.westernabenaki.com

“We are so excited to have them this year,” Dix said. “They are so well-known in this culture.”

Dix said Joanne Shenandoah, whose talent is in Native American music and culture, will perform at Shea Theater Arts Center, 71 Avenue A, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door Students and seniors pay $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Advanced tickets can be purchased at: www.showclix.com.

“She is absolutely amazing,” Dix said. 

Shenandoah is an artist, educator, lecturer, actor, singer, composer, women and children’s rights and peace advocate. She is a direct descendent of the famed Chief Shenandoah, who was given a Peace Medal by George Washington and established Hamilton College in Clinton (The Oneida Academy), N.Y. 

Many others will perform or offer demonstrations, including The Kingfisher Singers, Lee “Mixashawn” Rozie, Black Hawk Singers and Visioning B.E.A.R. Circle Intertribal Coalition. Justin Beatty will be emcee. Dix said there will be traditional crafts, storytelling, games and lots of children’s activities.

Admission to the festival is free. For more information about the festival and the different events, visit: www.nolumbekaproject.org or www.sheatheater.org.

Anita Fritz is senior reporter at The Greenfield Recorder. She began working there in 2002. She can be reached at afritz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.


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