burning mishoon

Preserving Our Heritage: The Art of Mishoon Burning

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Mishoon Burning

This past weekend, I had the profound experience of spending time on Lake Quinsigamond in Massachusetts with my Nipmuc/k relations. We gathered for a mishoon burning, a traditional dugout canoe, continuing a practice that connects us deeply to our ancestors. This location holds special significance, as our forebears sank several mishoonash there, where they have rested underwater for centuries. The event was not just a communal gathering, but also a powerful homage to our history and the resilience of the Nipmuc/k people.

mishoon burning


The Nipmuc, also known as the Nipmuck, are an Indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands who historically spoke an Eastern Algonquian language. Their ancestral territory, called Nippenet, meaning “the freshwater pond place,” is located in central Massachusetts and extends into parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Our ancestors have lived in this region for thousands of years, long before European settlers arrived. The name “Nipmuc/k” translates to “people of the fresh water,” highlighting our deep connection to the lakes, rivers, and ponds that are integral to our homeland.

Traditionally, the Nipmuc/k lived in small, seasonal villages, hunting, fishing, and cultivating the “three sisters”; cornbeans and squash.  Our culture is rich with traditions, from storytelling and music to crafting intricate beadwork, basket weaving. Lake Quinsigamond has always been a vital part of our heritage, serving as a hub for travel, trade, and sustenance. The mishoon, or dugout canoe, was a crucial element in our daily life, enabling us to navigate these waters efficiently.

The Nipmuc/k people have endured many challenges throughout history, from the arrival of European settlers to the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Despite these obstacles, our community has remained resilient, preserving our language, traditions, and connection to the land. The stories of our ancestors, their skills, and their knowledge continue to be passed down through generations, ensuring that our rich heritage is not forgotten.

Our relationship with Lake Quinsigamond is particularly significant. This body of water has been a central part of our lives, not just as a resource for food and transportation, but also as a spiritual and cultural landmark. The mishoonash resting beneath its surface are more than just artifacts; they are a testament to our ancestors’ ingenuity and deep understanding of their environment

burning mishoon
Me - Mishoon Burning
burning mishoon
Me - Mishoon Burning

The Art of Mishoon Burning

Creating a mishoon is an art passed down through generations. The process begins with selecting a large, tall tree, typically white pine or chestnut, known for their durability and buoyancy. The tree is felled by carefully burning around its base until it topples, a method requiring both skill and patience.

Once the tree is down, it is placed on supports, and the bark and branches are removed. The log is then alternately burned and scraped to hollow out the interior, a laborious process that can take several days to a week or more. This method ensures the mishoon is strong and can withstand water travel. 

Pine is often chosen because as the fire burns the interior, the pine resin seeps into the wood, providing a natural waterproof seal. This technique, refined over centuries, shows our ancestors’ deep understanding of materials and their properties. The process requires careful monitoring to ensure the canoe’s walls are evenly burned and scraped, resulting in a perfectly balanced and functional mishoon.

Creating a mishoon is more than crafting a vessel; it is a communal activity that brings people together. Each step involves collaboration and sharing knowledge, strengthening cultural ties and passing down important skills to the next generation. The final product, a beautifully crafted mishoon, symbolizes our heritage and testifies to our ancestors’ ingenuity and resilience.

mishoon burning
Mishoon Burning

Preserving Mishoonash Through the Ages

Our ancestors understood the importance of preserving mishoonash for future use. They discovered that submerging the canoes in the lake during winter protected them from splitting or cracking due to cold weather. The lake’s moderate temperature changes kept the wood intact, and in spring, the mishoonash would be raised to the surface, ready for use.

Carbon-14 testing on one mishoon found on the floor of Lake Quinsigamond, called Mishoon #1, dates it to between 1640 and 1680 A.D. However, due to lake contamination during the Industrial Revolution, these results are tentative. Further testing is planned to provide more accurate dating and preserve the artifacts’ true historical value.

Sinking the mishoonash was a strategic preservation method based on a deep understanding of environmental conditions. By submerging the canoes, our ancestors used the lake’s consistent temperatures to prevent wood damage from expansion and contraction. This practice not only protected the canoes but also ensured they were ready for use when needed.

The practice of sinking and retrieving mishoonash highlights the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Nipmuc/k people. It reflects a profound connection to the natural world and the ability to adapt traditional techniques to the environment. This preservation method has allowed these ancient artifacts to survive for centuries, providing us with tangible links to our past.

burning mishoon
Troy (Nipmuc) and My Husband Scott - Mishoon Burning

Project Mishoon and Modern Efforts

The discovery of mishoonash in Lake Quinsigamond began in June 2000, when recreational diver Mike Brauer found a mishoon. Subsequent finds by Chris Hugo in 2001 confirmed that there were at least two more mishoonash in the area. This led to the creation of Project Mishoon, an underwater archaeology project spearheaded by Project Mishoon Coordinator Cheryl Stedtler and the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band. 

Project Mishoon aims to locate, excavate, and conserve these valuable artifacts to perpetuate our history and educate future generations. The project has received permits from the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (MBUAR), which oversees the protection of underwater archaeological resources. The ongoing efforts include visual confirmation of potential sites and the careful excavation of these ancient canoes.

Project Mishoon has become a vital initiative for the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band, combining the expertise of archaeologists, divers, and historians to protect and study these artifacts. The project not only seeks to uncover more mishoonash but also to educate the public about our rich cultural heritage. By preserving these canoes, we honor our ancestors and ensure that their legacy is remembered.

Learn more about project mishoon here: Explore the underwater treasures of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band

mishoon burning
mishoon burning


Reflecting on the weekend’s activities at Lake Quinsigamond, I am filled with pride and a renewed sense of purpose. The art of burning mishoonash and our collective efforts to preserve these artifacts are a testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of the Nipmuc/k people. This event was more than a simple gathering; it was a celebration of our rich cultural heritage and a commitment to ensuring that our history is remembered and cherished by future generations.

Once the mishoon burning is concluded, we will take it onto the water, paddling the same path as our ancestors. We will pass directly over the sunken mishoonash that have lain at the bottom of Lake Quinsigamond for the last 400 years. The community’s involvement and dedication to preserving our heritage are vital, and I am honored to be a part of this ongoing journey.

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