Corrected: Northeastern tribes partner to paddle on mishoon's maiden voyage
Editor's note: Corrected to update the names of the participating tribes.
Visitors to Mystic Seaport know the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan is pretty much the museum's iconic property. But a very different craft grabbed all the attention Saturday morning.
A 36-foot mishoon — a Native American dugout canoe typically made from a poplar trunk — made a turnabout maiden voyage from the Seaport to Noank and back, paddled by 12 representatives from New England tribes.
The mishoon was commissioned in the spring by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and constructed under the guidance and skill of Wampanoag canoe makers.
The museum, which reopened in May after a five month hiatus, then partnered with the Seaport for the mishoon's maiden voyage.
Prior to setting out, the paddlers, dressed in historical clothing respective to their tribes, gathered on the dock for rituals and a blessing ceremony.
A prayer was offered by Laughing Woman, the Mashantucket Pequot spiritual leader, and Christopher Newell, an educator at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, sang a traditional song.
Then, boarding the mishoon and resting on their knees, paddlers set out through calm waters on a gorgeous day.
A sizable crowd of family members, friends, tourists and history buffs broke into cheers and applause as the mishoon turned downriver toward Noank.
In addition to the Mashantucket Pequots, participating tribes were the Narragansetts, the Schaghticokes, the Passamaquoddy, and Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoags and the Shinnecocks from Long Island.
"We wanted to do something very visible and with symbolism and meaning to reopen the museum — something that brings the Mashantuckets and area communities together," said Jason Mancini, director of the museum. "A mishoon and paddling have an important historical significance to indigenous communities. At the same time, the Mystic River has a rich and connective history with the Mashantuckets and this seemed an ideal way to open discussion about it."
The project's association with the Seaport was a natural, said Steven C. White, president of the Seaport. "The museum had the vision and we had the water. It's a privilege to be a part of this."
Mishoons were the most widely used boats in North American waters in the 17the century, and to make them involves an arduous and repetitive process of scraping a selected timber and then using fire and a burn-out process. This particular project took 10 weeks.
A 36-foot mishoon is particularly large, said Darius Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, which has been building the boats for more than 50 years.
He and Jonathan Perry, another mishoon veteran who's cultural officer at Martha's Vineyard Aquinnah Cultural Center, oversaw the construction of the Mashantucket canoe with volunteer assistance from members of several Native American communities.
"There's a lot of significance to this boat beyond the size," Coombs said. "Just to get out in these waters in this fashion, after 200 years, has very special meaning."
Before boarding the canoe as a paddler, Rodney Butler, Mashantucket Pequot tribal chairman, wasn't remotely concerned about the seaworthiness of the craft.
"These guys are seasoned builders and we have seasoned canoers," he said. "Plus, we had a test drive sea-crawl last night and we're ready to go."
Butler said the participatory nature of the trip was also important.
"That we have other tribal members participating from nations across New England is very meaningful." He turned and indicated the crowd. "And this turnout is something. It's a good day."
Watching the mishoon embark on its voyage, Seaport visitor Jack Coleman and Mary Jane Taylor were impressed.
"That's old school," Coleman laughed. The pair, in Mystic on vacation for the first time, said they'd always wanted to visit the Seaport and were told by a local that something special might be happening.
"It's amazing to see and it's a great collaboration between museums," Taylor said. "And that it happened today, when we're here, makes it even better."
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