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Sacred run and sacred paddle provide solemn memorial for Massachusetts Natives

BOSTON – “I hope our ancestors regain some of their pride stripped from them here on this island that is now a sewer treatment plant for the City of Boston. I am honored they watched over us,” wrote Annawon Weeden, Wampanoag, who finished a 20-mile sacred paddle Oct. 30 to memorialize the internment of indigenous people on Deer Island in Boston Harbor in 1675 as well as the path they were forced to travel: 12 miles by roads, 20 miles by river to the open sea and then to barren Deer Island.

A cheer went up in the crowd of more than 150 people who had gathered in the meeting hall, the sacred paddlers’ destination, at the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Facility, when they recognized that Troy Phillips, Nipmuc, had entered the room. “They’re here, they’re here,” was shouted by many for the people knew how dangerous the journey was for all the paddlers and runners and they had already waited several hours later than expected.

(One paddler who had finished and met everyone at Deer Island, and who did not want to be named, mentioned they would have arrived sooner but Homeland Security had directed them further out into the harbor.)

Memorials for those who were sacrificed have taken place on the island since 1992, but this was the first year that a sacred run and sacred paddle had taken place.

The sacred run started at 5 a.m. at the Falls in South Natick, where in 1675, 500 primarily Nipmuc elders, women and children were forcibly removed from their homes and put in chains to be taken by water to Deer Island for the duration of King Phillip’s War. An Indian burial ground, and the grave of John Eliot, the land speculator and Indian converter to Christianity, is located today at the Falls.

Then, three mishoonas (traditional dugout canoes) and a 28-foot war canoe put in on the Charles River across from the Watertown Arsenal (the arsenal was built over another indigenous ancient city). “Watertown Phase” has become an archaeologist’s term for artifacts found at the arsenal burial site.

Three of only 30 mishoonas produced since 1985 by the Wampanoag Indigenous Program at Plymouth Plantation, using 17th century tools and techniques, the crafts stood out among the early morning university skull drill teams and Newton and Watertown yacht clubs’ pleasure craft. The custom-built, red war canoe was donated for the day by Penobscot Waterways, a nonprofit organization that teaches paddling and environmental issues on the Penobscot River in Maine.

Gedakina, (which means “our homeland” in Abenaki), a Native nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the cultural knowledge and identity of Eastern First Nations people, supported the paddlers and runners from Abenaki, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy communities, as Eastern people had always supported one another.

The paddlers began in relatively calm waters but as the day progressed and they entered the Charles River Basin, where ocean tides, the locks, and the ever-present wind combine to make the area dangerous for any craft, one mishoonas overturned. Pulled under Memorial Drive, where the road is suspended over the river, the mishoonas did not look salvageable.

Weeden, paddling in the stern, had to climb, fully drenched, onto a concrete stanchion and wait stretched out on his stomach. Marcus Hendricks, grandson of Nipmuc sachem Mary Anne Hendricks, paddling in the center, tried to turn the craft over. The War Canoe, already fully loaded with people, reached the three and picked up Troy Phillips, who had just recovered from a serious illness. Weedon and Hendricks continued on and finished the sacred paddle in the ancestral water craft.

Hendricks had also completed the sacred run, pushing his grandmother in her wheel chair the last few miles.

The other two mishoonas, which are primarily built for river travel, sank in the open water of the harbor but were recovered.

Back at Deer Island where people waited anxiously, Sachem Hendricks was introduced and asked other elders in the circle to stand and be recognized. Then, Larry Spotted Crow Mann, Nipmuc, led Quabbin Lake Singers in a song. “You can hear this is a happy song, because I think that’s what our ancestors want to hear right now,” he announced. Another, all-woman drum sang an honoring song that had been composed on Deer Island during a previous memorial.

Later, Mann said, “It was an honor to be part of this ceremony and the cold and chilling winds that I experienced just pulling up the heavy mishoonas out of the water was nothing compared to what our ancestors suffered on that cold island with no food and clothing.”

Back on land, those who could traveled back to Natick to share in a traditional feast of turkey, wild rice, succotash, smoked salmon, corn and a variety of pies.

Finally, when the mishoonas was overturned in the Charles River, onlookers on Memorial Drive, who were from Europe and South America, hollered for help, unaware of the incredible combined skill of the paddlers. When they were told about the sacred paddle, the canoes, and what happened to Massachusetts’ indigenous people, one tourist commented, “I have no knowledge of this history; I actually know more about Lebanon’s tribes from watching a food channel on television.”

Ironically, both Weeden and Phillips acted in the PBS documentary “We Shall Remain!”