In the Northeastern Coastal Algoquin language, our word for dugout canoe is “mishoon.” Our coastal Tribes have utilized the waterways as ancient highways for thousands of years. As the original population of the American northeastern region, traditional culture is difficult to practice due to laws against our ways of living, which include coastal Tribes not being able to access waterways and being challenged for fishing rights and foraging for trees and plant medicines. These rights and practices have been taken away from our Peoples as early as 1627, and we are still fighting for these rights. Our canoe culture allows for the continuous survival of our threatened heritage as coastal people. Much of American and Native American history begins with our geographical Northeastern Coastal Algonquin history through the waterways.
Over the years, more traditional work has been done to resurge and revitalize our traditional canoe culture. We are passing down the traditions of identifying the right trees to build dugout canoes, working alongside traditional dugout canoe builders who are teaching the next generation of wisdom keepers, and getting more experience paddling in our traditional waters, all of which is resurging and healing our communities. As culture bearers, our work helps to illuminate the wider view and understanding of Indigenous people through cultural competency and connectivity to humanity and global diversity.
In June of 2012, I led members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation on a historic four-day canoe journey from Shinnecock territory in Long Island, New York to Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan territory in southeastern Connecticut across the Long Island Sound with intentions of forming a traditional mishoon society. This journey had not been made in over 400 years. Upon my return, a few of my medicine teachers shared with me that my spirit was awakened during that canoe journey and that much would begin to change. This included my name, Sagkomanau Mishoon Netooeusqua, which translates to, “I lead Canoe I am Butterflywoman.” It was during that time in my life that I fully stepped into who I am, and have not deviated since.
Tribal communities from southeastern Connecticut recently created the largest mishoon made in over 400 years. Fourteen paddlers launched the mishoon in the Mystic River, including members of the Wampanoag, Shinnecock, Narragansett, Schaghticoke, and Pequot Tribes. This was the largest New England mishoon that paddled from Mystic Seaport to Noyak Beach. At each stop, canoe families follow common protocols, which includes asking permission to come ashore, often in their Native languages.
Andre StrongHeartBear (Nipmuc) carving the mishoon. Photo by Chenae Bullock.
Once ashore, they are invited to set camp. At night in the longhouses there is gift giving, honoring, and the sharing of traditional prayer, drumming, songs, and dances. Meals, including an evening dinner of traditional foods, are provided by host Nations. Canoe journey events are large and exhilarating experiences, assisting the resurgence of our responsibility as Indigenous people to the water for all humanity. Global water crises such as the Navajo water crisis, where a large percent of Navajo families live without running water; contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan; the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline; and the struggle to stop Line 3, a proposed pipeline expansion that would bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, are all examples of things we pray for during paddle gatherings.
Building canoes are an important part of paddle journeys because the mishoon is an extension of our people. The mishoon is alive and must be taken care of throughout her lifetime; the cultural teachings we pass down include those traditional instructions. As coastal people, we were placed on the coast to protect and serve the water and the land. Many of our sister Tribal communities no longer have control over their water sources and are fighting for Indigenous water rights. Our work to resurge our traditional canoe comes with a sense of urgency. Our cultures are what sustains the environment through our Indigenous ecological knowledge. The more people learn about biocentric lifestyles and sustainable living, the more we can collectively come together to help restore the global biodiversity that is needed for our unity.
As we continue to gather to practice our canoe culture, we see how coastal communities are working towards truth and reconciliation within their towns, cities, and states. We are seeking to create a stewardship to compare and learn how assimilation has impacted Indigenous coastal communities with the goal of fostering the restoration of our traditional practice. An inspiring example of creating an educational experience for both Indigenous communities and the public is the recent mishoon burn that took place in Sudbury, Massachusetts at the Wayside Inn in fall 2022, facilitated by Andre StrongHeartBear (Nipmuc) and Hartman Deetz (Mashpee Wampanoag). I was one of three apprentices invited and welcomed with Tribal volunteers to work on the mishoon.
The canoe was burned for six days straight—a process that can sometimes take up to 10 days—and shaped the mishoon to a shared vision. The apprentices were each able to include our personal, hand carved designs on the mishoon to adorn her. Then, after all of the carving and burning was complete, we floated her in the pond nearby. In the words of StrongHeartBear, “These vessels (mishoons) will teach you about patience, pain, love, and acceptance. Every drop of water that falls on the flame connects the spirit of our ancestors to the present day, awakening the truths of our stories to be told.” When finished, these canoes will be comparable to ones that were used by Northeastern Indigenous Peoples thousands of years ago. It is essential that we continue to pass this knowledge on and to maintain our Native cultures and practices for generations to come.
When I am called to be present to take care of traditional work, everything else is put on hold. This is the balance that is being restored when we take care of our traditional work. When we do not counterbalance the colonized mindset and way of life by going deep into our traditional practices, we lose more and more of ourselves. But the moment we retreat into our ancient societies, balance is restored—and that’s the work we have done collectively as sister Tribes, from the start of our prayers during the Green Corn gatherings to paddling in this mishoon built by us.
Being able to bring our medicines together to build a vessel to help heal the waters and all life on land with ancient wisdom has been such an honor. The importance of
the Elders being present with the babies is symbolic of the full circle around our mishoon society. We carry so much medicine as individuals and each of us has different roles, but we are meant to be going in the same direction. I am looking forward to bringing in more resources and building stronger relationships with people to continue to make these experiences possible so our canoe culture can continue to thrive.
Chenae Bullock preparing for the 2022 Water Ceremony in New York City. Photo by Adrian Childress.
This year in New York City for Indigenous Peoples Day, I was asked by global Indigenous Elders and water protectors to lead the 8th Annual Water Ceremony on the East River. More people than ever before brought waters from around the globe to be prayed over. In our teachings, when we have water ceremonies, we ask those who are closest to the body of water in which we are gathering to come forth to put their prayers in the water. We as canoe people and culture bearers have a responsibility to come together collectively and help protect waters everywhere.
— Chenae Bullock, (Shinnecock) is a community leader, water protector, cultural preservationist, Indigenous perspective historian, and humanitarian. She is also the
founder and CEO of Moskehtu Consulting, LLC and a 2022–2023 Cultural Survival Writer in Residence.
Top photo: Paddling the mishoon created in October 2022, in Sudbury, MA. Photo by Scott Foster.