For the first time in hundreds of years, Mashpee Wampanoag youth paddled a traditional mush8n (pronounced “mishoon”) boat on Mashpee/Wakeby Pond three weeks ago.
The mush8n was made by tribal youth, guided by cultural educator and tribe member Darius Coombs. It was the first time in 50 years that one of these boats was made on the tribe’s ancestral land.
Students between 5th and 8th grade and older tribal youth who served in leadership roles used a burning-and-scraping technique to turn a 12-foot-long pine tree into a canoe.
The last time Wampanoag people built a mush8n on their land in Mashpee was in the 1970s. It has been even longer since the young people of the tribe rode in one of the boats in Mashpee/Wakeby Pond. Mr. Coombs said it has been hundreds of years.
“You’re bringing back these cultural ways and our traditions,” Mr. Coombs said he told the youth working on the project.
He said it taught the children about their history and the tribe’s material culture.
“The kids took pride in what they did because it was their mush8n,” he said. “That’s what I told them all the time. This is not my boat, this is not the tribe’s boat, this is the Wampanoag youth’s boat, so take pride in what you do.”
The project began in June 2020 but was delayed due to COVID-19. Participants began working on the canoe again this August and completed it last month.
Kuwah Deetz, a 16-year-old tribal member and “intern” on the mush8n project, explained the traditional construction process. Wampanoag builders begin by covering the base of the tree with clay, above and below where they want it to be cut down, she said. They burn the tree until it falls. After the tree comes down, builders slowly burn away layers of wood from the long side of the log. From there, they scrape to expose the new wood and burn the outside to seal in the sap and make the boat waterproof.
For the mush8n project this summer, Mr. Coombs led two 24-hour burns. This step in the construction process is important, he said, as fire becomes hotter the longer it burns. Doing a controlled, long-burn helps the canoe take shape.
Ms. Deetz has worked on similar projects in the past, learning these traditions from her uncle, Mr. Coombs, and other tribal educators. She said for this project it was meaningful to step into a leadership role herself.
“We talk about the importance of the circle in our tribe a lot; there’s a circle of life and we’re all connected,” she said. “To pass on the knowledge that was taught to me by the very people who were leading this whole project to my younger peers was something that I really enjoyed.”
When the mush8n was completed, members of the tribe came to watch and participate in its launch at Mashpee/Wakeby Pond. Three tribal youth were the first to jump into the boat and take it for a row around the lake.
Mr. Coombs and other Wampanoag educator Phillip Wynne paddled the boat, but everyone who wanted to take a turn had the opportunity to ride in the mush8n.
Members of the tribe from 3 months old to 90 years old took turns in the boat. It was the first time many of the elders had the opportunity to ride in a mush8n.
The youth and Mr. Coombs invited canoers and kayakers to join them, and many more people watched from the shore. After three or four hours of paddling, everyone celebrated with a lobster bake.
“It was an awesome day because it brought people together, it brought little ones together,” Mr. Coombs said. “I saw on shore people laughing and smiling, and that was really nice to see.”
He emphasized that the young people and the elders—who made history with the mush8n ride—represented intergenerational cultural knowledge.
The youth who worked on the project, he said, will help keep Wampanoag traditions alive.
“They’re the ones who are going to be the holders of this information, the holders of this material culture, and they’re responsible to keep it and pass it along to the next generation,” he said.
Ms. Deetz said creating and celebrating together is a way the Wampanoag people stay connected.
“In this country and outside of it indigenous people have been going through hardships over the last however many hundreds of years,” she said. “Doing small projects and working in our community are some of the most important things to keeping us within our culture.”
Later this month the youth who worked on the boat are going to participate in a “sinking.” This is a traditional practice that Wampanoag tribe members have been doing for thousands of years.
They will put large rocks into the mush8n in the pond to sink it as the weather gets colder. Staying under the frozen water during the winter prevents oxygen from getting to the wood to rot the boat, Mr. Coombs said. In the spring, they will bring the boat back up to the surface to reuse again.
Mr. Coombs said this mush8n will last for about 20 years and will be used in tribal education programs. Now that the young people have been taught these skills, he hopes they will work on more mush8ns in the future.
“This boat is carrying on cultural traditions,” he said. “It is who you are as a people, your cultural ways. We have lost quite a bit over the years, so if we can regain them, we have to keep them and do them.”