When the sun rose over the Tobin Memorial Bridge in Charlestown on Oct. 31, it marked more than a new day for two local Indigenous tribes. It marked the first day of a historic undertaking: Boston’s first postcolonial mishoon burning.
A mishoon is a canoe made from a tree that’s crafted by means of a continuous, controlled burn. It’s an Indigenous tradition that’s been passed down through generations, and dates back more than 10,000 years. Mishoons were traditionally a means of transportation and intertribal exchange, and the 24/7 burns, which last up to two weeks, represent a sacred part of the mishoon-making process.
Andre Strongbearheart Gaines of the Nipmuc Tribe and Thomas Green of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag are behind the Boston effort. The mishoon that’s smoldering at the Little Mystic Boat Slip in Charlestown will be there until Nov. 13, or until it’s ready — whichever comes first. The site is open to the public, and members of the Nipmuc and Massachusett tribes encourage everyone to visit. They’re there all day every day tending the fire in shifts. They sleep in tents and cook meals over the burning mishoon. They’re there to answer questions and educate.
“It’s cultural revitalization for tribal youth and adults, and also public education,” Strongbearheart said of the project.
“This was a standard way of living for our ancestors. They did this regularly,” Green added.
Strongbearheart, a cultural steward and leader for the Nipmuc Tribe, has helped facilitate mishoon burnings across the state for the last four years. He’s observed mishoon burnings since he was 10 or 11, he said, and credits his craftsmanship to his ancestors and elders, Annawon Weeden and Darrius Coombs of the Mashpee Tribe. Strongbearheart also credits the people who pioneered similar cultural revitalization efforts when it was still technically illegal for Native Americans to be in Boston less than 20 years ago.
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