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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    Mystic Seaport exhibit reframes Black and Indigenous maritime history

    A traditional wood canoe on display at the Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty and the Sea exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum, Thursday, April 28, 2024. The exhibit examines the maritime history of Black and Indigenous People from their perspective. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A first edition Elliot Bible Leaf from 1663 on display at the Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty and the Sea exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum, Thursday, April 18, 2024. The exhibit examines the maritime history of Black and Indigenous People from their perspective. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Drums from all Directions, by Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, at the Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty and the Sea exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum on April 18, 2024. The exhibit examines the maritime history of Black and Indigenous People from their perspective. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    TideLine, a piece by Nafis M. White, on display at the Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty and the Sea exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum Thursday, April 18, 2024. The exhibit examines the maritime history of Black and Indigenous People from their perspective. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The Rainbow Regalia, a traditional dance regalia from Sherenté Mishitashin Harris, displayed in the Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty and the Sea exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum that opens Saturday, April 20. The exhibit examines the maritime history of Black and Indigenous People from their perspective. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Mystic ― Dawnland, the Indigenous name for the eastern seaboard of North America, is the first place the light of a new day touches the land known to Native Americans as Turtle Island.

    Conversely, Duskland is the last place the light leaves the dying day.

    Entwined: Freedom, Sovereignty, and the Sea, a new exhibit that opened Saturday at Mystic Seaport Museum, examines how millennia of maritime history intertwine for the Indigenous people of the Atlantic Ocean’s Dawnland and those who come from Duskland on the western coast of Africa.

    The exhibit showcases 22 contemporary artworks and numerous artifacts on loan from other museums, libraries and collections to examine millennia of Black and Northeastern Indigenous maritime experiences, spirituality, technology and culture to shed a new light on the cultural parallels, history and collective journey of two seemingly disparate groups.

    Akeia de Barros Gomes, senior curator of Maritime Social Histories at the museum, said earlier in April that the three-year project brought together Indigenous and Black artists, craftspeople and committee members, as well as historians, experts and other museums, to reclaim the extensive maritime-influenced histories and traditions of the two cultures, which have often been told and understood through the lens of colonialism and European perspectives.

    The result is an exhibit that begins thousands of years in the past on two continents and examines the spirituality, cultures and technology of the people there. It moves through the period of colonialism, slavery and dispossession, discussing the perseverance and experiences of the two groups that became entwined through the colonial period.

    The exhibit finishes with works by Indigenous and African-descended modern artists that celebrate joy, resilience and their cultural identities, ancestral traditions and history.

    An original copy of the Eliot Bible, religious objects and other artifacts highlight the parallels between the two peoples separated by an ocean. Commissioned works and archival records underscore similar spiritual beliefs like the circular, rather than linear, nature of time, the reverence for water and the significance of turtles, and the technological innovations, like identical methods for making dugout canoes, and vast trade networks that existed in both lands.

    “Indigenous people here and Africans were framed as primitive and godless, but when you look at the knowledge people had, and the knowledge of ecology people had, and the technological skills that they had, it’s pretty telling that they were not heathenish,” Gomes said while standing beside an example of Wampum made of beads barely larger than a grain of rice.

    The beads made from quahog clam shells, she explained, were not a form of currency, though they were highly valued and a traditional adornment for clothing or jewelry. Gomes noted the technology used to drill holes through the tiny shell beads cannot be replicated today, and belts made of the beads held histories, documented treaties and recorded cosmological movements.

    Cowrie shells, native to the Indian Ocean, held a similar significance in Africa. The spread of both Cowrie shells and Wampum across the two continents testifies to the vast trade networks that existed on both continents made possible, in part, by masterful boatwrights, an expansive knowledge of, and a deep spiritual connection to, waterways and the sea.

    A partially reconstructed, 2,500-year-old Aboriginal cooking pot on display in the Stillman Building exhibit encapsulates the story being told.

    “All of us who participated in this exhibit are doing the same work the archaeologists did by putting this vessel back together. You can see there are holes in it. You can see there are parts that have been ground to dust and will never be recovered, but we pledge to keep doing the work until this vessel can hold water again,” Gomes said.

    The vessel, which once held water, cannot because it is fragmented, much like colonialism and slavery fragmented Black and Indigenous communities, Gomes explained.

    However, Gomes points out that colonization, slavery and dispossession — and the fragmenting of culture and kinship they wrought — are not the sum of their history.

    Rather they are just one piece of the exhibit’s much larger story of maritime skill, perseverance, kin and the threads that continue to connect the Indigenous people of the Dawnland, their culture, spirituality and technology to their counterparts descended from people of the Duskland.

    The exhibit is located in the Stillman Building and is scheduled to run through the spring of 2026.

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