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.
Though it hadn’t been enforced in centuries, it wasn’t until 2005 that former governor Mitt Romney signed a bill repealing a 330-year-old state law that said Native Americans were not allowed to enter the City of Boston unless they were chaperoned by a “musketeer.” The law was enacted during King Philip’s War of the 1670s and condemned Native Americans to imprisonment and worse if they violated it. The head of Wampanoag chief Metacom, also known as King Philip, was marched from Weymouth to Plymouth and put on a spike in front of the gates at Plymouth, where it remained for more than two decades, “to warn any other Indians that try to go against the colonists that this is what’s going to happen,” Green said. “And he wasn’t by any measure the last person this happened to.”
King Philip’s War pitted Indigenous communities against New England colonists and is considered one of the bloodiest battles on US soil.
Considering all this history, the mishoon burning is the perfect project for Boston, Strongbearheart and Green argue. And that’s why they overcame so many obstacles to make it happen.
“This was five months in the making,” Strongbearheart said, adding that the process of bringing the project to Boston was more difficult, bureaucratic, and pricey than it’s been in other Massachusetts communities. He had to find a location, secure permits and licenses, and line up insurance. But before all of that, Strongbearheart went to Green and the Massachusett Tribe.
“I would never come here and just burn out a mishoon in his territory, because I’m in Nipmuc. My tribe is in Grafton and Springfield and even into Natick. But that’s why I reached out. This is what we’ve always done. We’ve always brushed shoulders with our sister communities,” Strongbearheart said. “It’s important we acknowledge each other before we talk to any bureaucracy because that’s what we did here for thousands of years.”
When Strongbearheart and Green first pitched the mishoon-burning project to the city, it was denied. It’s illegal to burn an open fire in Boston, let alone continuously for more than a week. But Indigenous communities have federal treaties that supersede state laws, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 paved the way for them to burn ceremonial fires and honor other traditions. Strongbearheart and Green also initiated a lot of community support.
“We got a bunch of players involved,” Strongbearheart said, adding that they secured backing from the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and the Boston Conservation Commission. They were also awarded a $20,000 grant through Olmsted Now’s Parks Equity & Spacial Justice Projects. After delays and date changes, the project was finally approved.
The official project name is Communal Waters: Highways of Intertribal Exchange. Strongbearheart and Green’s aim is to revitalize Indigenous culture and teach the public as well as continue to foster relationships among sister tribes throughout New England. Members from the Chappaquiddick, Mi’kmaq, and Mashpee tribes have also volunteered to assist with the Nipmuc-Massachusett joint burning.
At the site, Indigenous music plays. People spray the smoldering fire with spritzes of water, while others rest in tents. Visitors might notice a depiction of a colonist’s bloody head mounted on a spike — “in memorial of all North East Woodland Indigenous, who were murdered and beheaded by the English for public display,” a sign at the site reads.
“It’s not to create fear,” Strongbearheart said. “Even though that’s why [the colonists] did it.”
So far, Strongbearheart and Green said the Boston project has been mostly met with curiosity and respect. But some people have been aggressive. Strongbearheart shared a video with the Globe of a man berating him and raising his voice at him.
“Why don’t you do this where you live?,” the man can be heard saying in the video. And later: “Hey, I didn’t beat up your grandfather. Don’t give me [expletive].”
“For us to have to deal with that in this day and age in a space where we created a healthy environment to relearn and just be who we are here? We shouldn’t be dealing with that in 2022,” Strongbearheart said.
Strongbearheart and Green encourage the community to come down: They’re eager to answer questions and talk. They hope this will be a first of many mishoon burnings in Boston.
“In another couple of years, all the tribes and bands in Massachusetts and hopefully outside Massachusetts as well will have these and can get on the water and meet each other like we used to, on the water,” Green said, adding that local Indigenous people were once part of a mishoon society, with vessels that could hold up to 40. “This is just the first one. We’re hoping to have a fleet.”
“It’s a lot of balance between water and fire,” Strongbearheart said. “It teaches you so many lessons about patience and pain and happiness.”
“This work is food for the soul,” Green said.
Due to a reporter’s errors, an earlier version of this story misnamed two of the organizations involved. They are the Boston Conservation Commission and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. The Globe regrets the errors.