Don't rock the mishoonash

Don’t rock the mishoonashThis article was published in the October 24 issue of the Wareham Courier. It is the final part of a three-part series. See video after the jump.

Out on the water, the mishoonash rolled just enough to unsettle an unwary passenger. Slowly, Philip Wynne began to paddle around Eel River Pond, dipping his paddle along one side and then the other in a steady rhythm. A few gulls circled overhead while they looked for something to eat.

The mishoonash was part of the lifeblood of the Wampanoag people, used in everything from trade to fishing, but out on the water it was still apparent that it may have had more in common with Huck Finn's raft than a sleek, modern canoe.

"I think they perform like a car that's got their power steering chopped off," Wynne, a Masphee Wampanoag working at Plimoth Plantation, said. "If you're used to canoes or kayaks, all you have to do is basically the same thing but put a little bit more muscle into it. But these boats really aren't like canoes and kayaks, because they're all made for the ocean,"

As if to emphasize that point, Wynne struck the boat against a fishing weir while taking it out into the pond, taking in a hundred pounds of water. This weight helps to balance the boat when standing up in it to spear a fish or show off for the ladies.

"Funny thing is, this would be a huge part of courtship. Ain't no movies to see but you could take your date out on a nice canoe ride," Wynne said.

As stable as they were, if rocked enough even the mishoonash could be tipped over.

"There was a huge manhole-sized snapping turtle that came under my boat like du-nuh and the boom, and that was the only time I kind of almost got tipped over," he said.

More than a few people have taken a spill in the boat races that the workers at the homesite hold on occasion, especially when they began making the boats a few years ago and hadn't quite mastered all of the techniques for maximizing a craft's performance in the water.

"You learned how to swim far before you learned how to paddle, so Wamps were real good swimmers," Wynne said.

There is a story that Roger Williams was out with a group of Wampanoags about two-miles offshore and was incredibly worried about what would happen if the boat were to suddenly be overturned, since there were no life preservers in those days. One of the Wampanoags nonchalantly said that he would carry him on his back to shore - thankfully for Williams he didn't have to find out

Apart from traveling to trade with other tribes and clans, there were many reasons to head out onto the open ocean. One of those was to drive whales ashore, by having several groups of men out on boats they would jab at it with spears trying to pierce its heart and chase it into the shore.

In larger boats they could also build fires so that they could fish at night under torchlight. Many fish, like sturgeon, would be drawn to the light of the torches because they like to play under the light of the moon.

While plying up and down the coasts and around rivers is easy, the Wampanoags would often head out into open waters. This made referring to landmarks difficult, but that wasn't too much of a problem.

"Around here we used the stars, the constellations; we just gave them different names," Wynne said.

The boats were generally kept in the water at all times because repeated soaking and drying might crack the wood and sink the boat. Having the boat soaked all of the time thereby prolonged its useful lifespan, which saved a lot of time and effort. Keeping the boat wet wasn't the only way they were preserved, In order to prevent freezing, which would certainly break the wood, the boats would be filled with rocks and submerged before the rivers froze. At the bottom of the rivers where the water didn't freeze the mishoonash would be protected from ice and oxygen, which could make the boat decay.

"Winter time was the time to chill out and enjoy the fruits of your labor," Wynne said.

Without the mishoonash to carry them all over, and with great drifts of snow covering all of the roads, the Wampanoag would gather with their families and clan.

"Having all your family around, if you think about it, that'd be like a winter-long barbecue," he said.

There were many subtleties to master, including using the weight distribution in the boat to help move in the water. Leaning out to one side to snap a few pictures would shift the boat in the water and help to send it into slow, gradual circles if someone wasn't paying attention. But out on the cool October water it was easy to see the appeal of restarting this craft for more than just educational purposes.

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