Native American Museum Teaches About Traditional Transportation As Cultural Resurgence

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Boarding the long dugout canoe and resting on their knees, paddlers from a Native American museum in Connecticut joined together in prayer led by a spiritual leader, sang a traditional song, and launched a retrospective into the roots of New England transportation. The paddlers were part of the Mission Muhshoon Project, one of many initiatives by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center that invites a journey through 20,000 years of Native and natural history.

The 36-foot “muhshoon” — the Pequot word for a traditional dugout canoe typically made from a tree trunk — was constructed under the guidance and skill of Wampanoag canoe makers. This Native American transportation project seeks a way of reclaiming the waterways and represents a cultural resurgence into sustainable, people-powered transportation.

native American museum
Photo courtesy of The Day newspaper

Dressed in historical clothing respective of their tribes, 12 representatives from 6 New England tribes paddled the muhshoon: the Mashantucket Pequots, the Narragansetts, the Schaghticokes, the Passamaquoddy, Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoags, and the Shinnecocks from Long Island. This muhshoon was named “Nookumuhs,” which is the Pequot word for “my grandmother.” Thus, Nookumuhs, or Grandmother, symbolizes the matriarch, part of a larger cultural worldview of respect for the feminine that is indicative of the Pequot people.

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native American museum
Illustration courtesy of Mashantuck Pequot Museum

The Pequots inhabited an area of present-day coastal Connecticut along the estuaries of the Thames, Mystic, and Pawcatuck rivers. Prior to European contact, dugout canoes were the principle means of traveling the extensive waterways of southern New England. The Pequots frequently crossed Long Island Sound to reach nearby islands and regularly navigated local rivers.

Most canoes were small — between 10 and 14 feet long — and could hold 3 or 4 people. These were often used for fishing in shallow waters. Larger ocean-going canoes, such as Nookumuhs, could reach over 40 feet in length and carry anywhere from 15 to 20 people and their possessions.

Pequot villages always had a number of small canoes on hand to use for fishing, trade, and scouting trips. Depending on their purpose, canoe travelers might cover 20 miles or more in a single day. Paddles were about 5 feet long and were usually carved from maple or ash, often with a characteristic ridge running the length of the blade. The overall shape and design of Native canoe paddles was fairly consistent throughout the Northeast.

Large Dugout Canoe Construction Reinforces Cultural Ways of Knowing

Diorama on display at Meshantucket Pequot Museum, Ledyard, CT

“I have seene a Native goe into the woods with onely a Basket of Corne with him, & stones to strike fire when he had feld his tree…”

Roger Williams, 1643

The canoe was once an important object in the daily life of the Pequots, but its utility diminished as the Pequots were forced to leave their traditional territory. By raising awareness of it through the Mission Muhshoon Project, though, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum hopes to help others to relearn culture and history.

Although the popular image of the northeastern Native canoe is one of birch bark, large white birch trees were not commonly found in southern New England. Historical records note that the Pequots, instead, used dugout canoes made from the hollowed-out trunks of pines, chestnuts, or other sizable trees.

Because the canoes would rot above ground in wintertime, the Pequot filled them with heavy rocks and sunk them fairly deeply, in about 20 feet of water, near the edge of ponds. In the spring, the people would usually dive underwater and remove the rocks; the canoe would float back up. It has been uncommon, however, to find these canoes in archaeological excavations. Because the wood decayed easily or the canoes were preserved in the bottom of ponds, authentic dugout canoes tend only to be found now, centuries later, during periods of drought or when a particular pond or lake is drained.

Native American museum
Nookumuhs was made from a 70-year-old tulip poplar tree, also called “canoe tree,” which was found in Ledyard, CT.

Constructed on the Pequot Museum’s farmstead, this was the largest muhshoon made in the traditional method of burning and hand-scraping in over 200 years. Drawing on knowledge about the Native canoe based on ethnohistoric records, Wampanoag canoe makers Jonathan Perry — who is a traditional artist and culture bearer at Martha’s Vineyard Aquinnah Cultural Center — and Darius Coombs — associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program — guided Nookumuh’s construction with volunteer assistance from members of several Native American communities.

The first step for the Pequots in the construction of a muhshoon was to locate a suitable large tree, which was felled by burning through the base and using a stone ax to hack away the charred wood. The Pequots hollowed out the logs with carefully controlled fires. As the fire smoldered, wood, shell, or stone tools were used to chip out the charred wood. When the log was sufficiently hollow, the final step was to use a scraper or quahog shell to smooth the canoe all over. The entire process for building an average size of 12 feet long took one man about 10 to 12 days.

After it was made, the Mission Mishoon was launched into and paddled down the Mystic River, which connects three of the Nation’s oldest Indian Reservations, from the headwaters near the Mashantucket Pequot and Eastern Pequot Reservations to the river’s mouth where the first Pequot reservation at Noank was located.

Highlights of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum Permanent Exhibits

The Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center features 85,000 square feet of permanent, indoor exhibitions including life-size dioramas, films, and interactive computer programs. The Museum offers engaging experiences for all ages, from life-size walk-through dioramas that transport visitors into the past, to changing exhibits and live performances of Native American contemporary arts and cultures. Two libraries, including one for children, offer a diverse selection of materials on the histories and cultures of all Native peoples of the United States and Canada.

Glacial Crevasse & A World of Ice: Journey back in time through the simulated glacial crevasse. Travel down into a glacier with dripping water, chilling air, and the sounds of an actual glacier, with its creaking ice and whistling winds. Then learn more about the last ice age and its effects on the landscape.

Arrival of the People: Native people across North America have different creation stories; nine Native American artists provided contemporary works of art to visually represent their tribe’s creation story. Complementing the artwork, an adjacent mini-theater shows storytellers relating parts of their own creation stories in their Native languages.

Life in a Cold Climate: Look into the eyes of life-size replicas of dire wolves, a mastodon, and a giant beaver – animals that inhabited this part of the continent more than 11,000 years ago. Life-like hunters pursue caribou among streams and rock outcroppings in a scene from ancient life in a cold climate.

The Changing Environment: The changing natural environment influenced Native daily life 6,000 years ago. Visitors can view four dioramas reflecting each season in different time periods and learn how life was adapted to each. A 20-seat theater shows a video about pre-historic tools from the Northeast, their uses, and how they were made.

Pequot Village: Observe daily life in a recreated 16th-century Pequot village, pre- and post-European contact. Walk among the trees, wigwams, and people who are cooking, talking, weaving, and working. Hear natural sounds and smell the aromas of the woodlands and campfires. All the figures were life-cast from Native American people; the traditional clothing, ornamentations, and wigwams were made by Native craftspeople. Individual audio tours are available for visitors. Two adjacent galleries, Pequot Society and Daily Life, further explore social and political organization, language, and objects from the Museum’s collection.

Arrival of the Europeans & Prelude to War: With the arrival of the Europeans, life changed dramatically for Native people. These exhibits explore the complex relationships, changes, and conflicts that arose with the newcomers.

The Pequot War: In 1637, the colonies of Connecticut and Massachusetts attacked the Mystic fort, killing approximately 600 Pequots. The Witness, a 30-minute, 70-mm film, graphically dramatizes the events surrounding the Pequot War. The film includes scenes of violence which may not be appropriate for children under 12.

Life on the Reservation: In this area, visitors learn what life was like for Pequot tribal members living on and off the reservation from the late 1600s to the 1980s. Highlights include an outdoor 18th century farmstead, a visit to the re-created 1940s home of tribal member Aunt Matt, and a look at the Pequot community through the 1970s. The film, Bringing the People Home, explains how the tribe rebuilt their nation and achieved Federal recognition in 1983.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Today & A Tribal Portrait Gallery: Learn about the contemporary Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation through photographs, artifacts, maps, and a topographical model of the reservation. The story continues in A Tribal Portrait, an exhibit of large black-and-white portraits of individual tribal members and families taken by Kwagiutl photographer David Neel.

Source: The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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