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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 24, 2002 - Issue 68


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Indian Voyage Echoes History

credits: Staff photos by Steve Heaslip
Staff photos by Steve HeaslipTISBURY, MA - It probably hasn't happened in more than a century - crossing Vineyard Sound in a dugout canoe. Yesterday, nine men and one woman ventured out in two mishoonash, the plural of mishoon, the native name for these vessels, from a beach under Nobska Light for a seven-mile paddle to Tashmoo Beach in Vineyard Haven.

The re-creation of the historic voyage, using the only means of transportation connecting mainland and island Wampanoag tribe communities hundreds of years ago, was planned by the staff of the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation, where the canoes were made using the ancient technique of their ancestors.

"It took us a full season to burn this one out," said Annawon Weeden, a Mashpee Wampanoag who works as an interpreter in the Wampanoag Indian Program.

The work on the canoes was done as part of the daily activities in the Hobomock's Homesite exhibit at Plimoth Plantation.

The 28-foot mishoon was made from a poplar tree donated by a family in Manomet.

"We built a fire right on top of it," Weeden said, describing the process of allowing the tree to burn, and scraping away charred wood until the desired shape is achieved.

In a thick morning fog, 10 men rumbled the half-ton mishoon over a series of ready logs, over a stony beach and into the sea where it floated while six of them climbed in. They were joined by the only woman paddler, Erin Saulnier, a Micmac Indian.

The second, smaller dugout, carved from a 20-foot section of pine, was already in the water with three men anxious to start the trip that they expected to take three to four hours.

Two fishing boats, captained by Aquinnah Wampanoag members Chip Vanderhoop and Lewis Colby, served as chase boats for the historic flotilla that set out just before 8 a.m. leaving several dozen well-wishers on the beach.

"Wunnish," Nancy "Dove" Eldredge called out a Wampanoag farewell.

One of the men called back a war cry, answered by a man on the beach, "Yi, yi, yi, yeeee!"

And they quickly disappeared into the fog.

Making a time warp
They had been preparing for several months, practicing in Plymouth Harbor, but nothing could have prepared Cassius Spears, a member of the Narraganset tribe, for the spiritual connection he would make to his ancestors on the journey.

"The water was very calm," Spears said.

Encased in the thick fog, filtered sunlight glistened on the water, the crew's paddles dipped in unison, but it was otherwise quiet and still.

The time warp was complete.

To experience the hardship of travel known to his forefathers created a bond for Spears with his own history.

"It was very spiritual," he said. "Overwhelming."

The boats cruised with ease for some time but the passengers were unaware of their progress.

"We were paddling in the fog, and it felt like we weren't even moving," Spears said.

Then, cutting through the same waters as Steamship Authority ferries, they heard the MV Islander sound its horn. The canoes had already moved through the channel but the approaching rip from the wake of the huge ferry would pose the first threat to the crews of the two small vessels.

"We cut into them at a 45 degree angle," said Darius Coombs, knowing that hitting them incorrectly could cause the boats to capsize.

"No one could tell what the outcome of the swell would be," Spears said.

But adrenaline would override fear and the only casualty would be a broken paddle in Weeden's grip.

"He was really tillin' with those long arms," Mashpee Wampanoag Earl Mills said.

Weeden was handed a spare paddle and the voyage continued.

Staff photos by Steve Heaslip'I needed to experience it'
If any of them were inclined to slow down and catch their breath after battling the ferry's wake Spears put an end to that thinking.

"Lets just kick it a little bit harder," he said fearing there might be greater challenges ahead.

But soon, and sooner than any of them imagined, the fog broke and the island was in sight. It had been steady hard work to get there .

"As soon as I saw the lifeguard stand on Tashmoo, I felt this gust of wind pushing us, and we had that wind right into Tashmoo," Coombs said. "It was our ancestors telling us, 'Take it easy, you're home now.'"

It was also a spiritual journey for Coombs, who conceived of the idea to take the trip more than four years ago. A manager in the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation, Coombs has been interpreting Wampanoag history for 16 years there.

"I was always telling people how this was done, how our people traveled in these boats to see our island neighbors, but it was based on what I had read," Coombs said. "I had never felt it. I needed to experience it."

In slightly more than 90 minutes, about the same amount of time it would take to park a car in a remote Steamship Authority lot, get a shuttle bus to the terminal, buy a ticket and take the ferry, the two dugout canoes were on the beach at Tashmoo, which is located west of the port of Vineyard Haven.

Aquinnah Wampanoag brothers Woody and Toby Vanderhoop wanted to greet the mishoon party and sing an honoring song, but they were just a few minutes too late.

"They beat everyone's expectations," Woody Vanderhoop said.

Stepping out of history
Several sunbathers and people fishing on the jetty at the entrance to the brackish Tashmoo pond were treated to an unexpected surprise.

Regina Evans, vacationing on the island from Hanover, was delighted.

"I knew there were Indians who lived here," she said. "At first I just thought this was something they just do all the time. It was so cool, especially for the kids to see."

Spears said he really felt like he was stepping out of history as he disembarked onto the beach.

"I felt like I needed to trade something," he said. "So I gave a little girl my granola bar."

After a traditional clambake in Aquinnah, members of the crew participated in the Aquinnah Wampanoag annual Legends of Maushop pageant at the tribal headquarters last night.

It is one of several cultural events sponsored by the island tribe each year. Coombs said he hopes the mishoon crossing will become part of that tradition.

Martha's Vineyard, MA Map
Maps by Travel

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