Traditional mishoon burning a ‘coming home’ for Nipmuc people

  • A mishoon, or dugout canoe, is created on Conway Road in Ashfield. Photo by Paul Franz

  • Kinobe Danna of Springfield, a member of the Penobscot Nation, pours water down the interior sides of the burning log to control the fire. Photo by Paul Franz

  • Andre “Strong Bear Heart” Gaines Jr. of Grafton, a member of the Nipmuc Nation, uses traditional methods to burn out a white pine log into a mishoon, or dugout canoe, at an encampment on Conway Road in Ashfield. Photo by Paul Franz

  • Firewood is added to the interior of the mishoon to keep the green log burning. Photo by Paul Franz

  • Andre “Strong Bear Heart” Gaines Jr., of Grafton, a member of the Nipmuc Nation, uses water and a curved metal tool resembling a hoe to control the burning of a white pine log into a mishoon. Photo by Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 11/8/2021 7:04:25 PM

ASHFIELD — For the first time in at least a century, members of the Nipmuc tribe have conducted a traditional mishoon burning on Nipmuc territory.

For more than a week, Andre “Strong Bear Heart” Gaines Jr., artist in residence with the Ohketeau Cultural Center, led the mishoon burning to create a dugout canoe at 1216 Conway Road. As a member of the Nipmuc Nation, Gaines said he was honored to conduct this traditional practice on Nipmuc territory.

The tradition of burning a mishoon dates back thousands of years — a 1,200-year-old canoe was recently discovered in Lake Mendota in Wisconsin. However, Gaines said, “there hasn’t been a Nipmuc to burn out one in Nipmuc territory in over 100 years.”

“This is really monumental,” Gaines said.

A historian from the Nipmuc Nation also visited last week, Gaines related. While originally under the impression it had been roughly 100 years since a mishoon was last burned by Nipmuc people on Nipmuc land, the historian suspected it was closer to 300 years, he said.

“What that means, I think, is from the time the settlers came and land got taken and all these things happened — I think my people literally just stopped doing it,” Gaines said. “Because it was illegal to do our traditional practices, to grow our hair or speak our language, until 1978.”

He said these connections to tradition have been “broken” for generations of Native peoples, and he was honored to revive this traditional skill of burning out a mishoon.

“It’s a coming back, coming home, for our people,” Gaines explained.

This traditional method of making a dugout canoe could take anywhere from seven to 10 days to complete if you’re maintaining the burn for 24 hours a day. While burning, he said the Nipmuc make as much use of the fire as possible by cooking meals on the coals and using the smoke to preserve animal hides.

To properly be burned, the tree — in this case, a white pine — needs to be fresh and full of sap.

“When it’s full of sap and you start burning down, it starts pushing all that sap out and toward the bottom, so by time you’re finished you have this nice layer of sap in the bottom, cauterized, and it almost, like, finishes it,” he explained. “We don’t use any chemicals on this. We don’t put any finish or anything like that.”

When the burning is complete, he will complete minor shaping of the hull and the interior. The edges will be shaved down to create a roughly inch-wide railing. Afterward, the mishoon will take its maiden voyage on Ashfield Lake.

Once placed in water, mishoons “live there for life,” Gaines said. If they are taken out of the water, they can dry out and the wood can crack. After inaugurating the mishoon, it will be sunk in an “undisclosed location,” deeper than a layer of ice would form so as to avoid damage, and will stay submerged through the winter.

“It’s going to be a cold swim,” Gaines said with a chuckle.

Gaines’ nephew and others assisted in the process. He said it was important to have younger generations learning these practices so they can be carried on for hundreds more years to come.

“Ever since we lit this, all I can think of is all my ancestors and all my relatives before me — either who have crossed over or who are still here,” Gaines said. “It’s a true honor for me to be able to bring this back to our people. And I can’t take the credit for that. I thank all the people who have taught me how to do this, and those who have guided me along the way.”

Gaines spent time around members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe while growing up on Cape Cod, and had seen mishoon burnings conducted when he was young. This summer, he was invited to teach his practiced skills as part of a workshop on the Cape. Some of his other traditional skills and artistic talents include paddle making, drum making, constructing jewelry with quahog and wampum shells, and traditional brain tanning (the art of preserving animal hides using agents in brain matter).

“We did the workshop to share traditional knowledge, to bring brain tanning back and revive it in their communities,” Gaines said. “Vice versa, they were sharing teachings about the mishoon and bringing this tradition back into our community.”

The Ashfield mishoon burning was supported in part by the Creative Futures Collaborative — a partnership with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Barr Foundation and the Ford Foundation that seeks to build capacity for an inclusive, equitable arts and creativity sector in Massachusetts. The collaborative launched the Powering Cultural Futures initiative to address inequities and raise awareness about the need for racial equity in arts funding.

Participating organizations, including the Ohketeau Cultural Center of Ashfield, reflect a range of ethnic and racial communities, geographies, arts disciplines and organizational characteristics. Rhonda Anderson, founder and co-director of the grassroots Native American organization, said conducting the mishoon burn and being able to teach others this traditional skill “is a good example” of how the three foundations are lifting the work of organizations like Ohketeau to focus on community and culture.


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