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Aug 31, 2019 10:54 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon Racers Hold Traditional Canoe Paddle

Three-time World Welterweight Boxing Champion Kali
Sep 3, 2019 4:47 PM

The sun rose Sunday over a calm Shinnecock Bay, and while most people were still sleeping, or rubbing tired eyes over coffee, members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation had arrived at a pristine Shinnecock beach. They were there to paddle competitively in the fourth annual Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon (canoe) race, which each year is held over the annual Shinnecock Powwow weekend, so that paddlers from other Native tribes can join in the traditional event.

Called for 7 a.m., members of the Shinnecock tribe and visiting tribes from elsewhere signed safety waivers and split into teams of two — including this writer, a first-time participant. Native spectators who had come for the powwow trickled in, and by 7:30 a.m., a good-sized crowd had accumulated.

“Shinnecocks have been expert paddlers and voyagers for thousands of years,” said Shinnecock tribal member, Mishoon Race organizer and paddler Chris Weaver, as he handed out colorful race T-shirts to participants. “We have fished, hunted and traveled in the Atlantic and various waterways surrounding our territory. And, in an effort to reinvigorate our paddling culture and bring something positive to the community, we created the Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon Race.”

Though some recent media attention has highlighted — and, at times, criticized — economic development efforts by the Shinnecock, such as the electronic billboard sign on Sunrise Highway near Hampton Bays, many Shinnecock say they prefer to focus on the important cultural and environmental practices of the Shinnecock people. Some of these are made visible to the public over Labor Day weekend at the powwow — such as traditional dance, food and crafts — but canoe paddling is another sacred, perhaps lesser-known practice.

The weekend’s Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon race began with a ceremony by Shane Weeks, a Shinnecock Nuttouwompitea (wampum-maker) and Midewiwin (medicine man), that lasted about 15 minutes, as the teams hit the water in modern canoes after an opening cry. They paddled furiously out to a marker canoe, where Chenae Bullock, a fellow Shinnecock organizer and lead paddler, and Roddy Smith, joined by a young boy learning the art of paddling, sat, calling out paddle strokes.

After circling twice, competitors raced back to shore, rushing to touch Mr. Weaver’s waiting hands as a finish. The crowd cheered, applauding all the teams.

“Our annual Mishoon Race celebrates the awakening of our tribe, bringing back not only our fishing ways but working together in our canoe culture,” Ms. Bullock said. Her Native name is Sagkompanau Mishoon Netooeusqua (“I lead canoe — I am butterflywoman”), and she is a cultural educator and carrier of tradition, like Mr. Weaver, for the tribe.

Fellow organizers Cholena Smith-Boyd, Aiyana Smith, Shane Weeks, Roddy Smith, and Miles Roe all carry the healing traditions surrounding water forward for future generations, sometimes taking long canoe journeys to the waters of sister tribes throughout the year.

Though the Shinnecock Mishoon Race is a one-day event, Shinnecock paddlers often take part in multi-day races, during which paddlers make numerous stops and travel greater distances.

At each stop on a longer race, as was the case in the Shinnecock ancestors’ canoe journeys, families follow common traditional protocols, including asking permission to come ashore, often in their Native languages. Once ashore, they are invited to set camp. At night, there is gift giving, honoring, the sharing of traditional prayer, drumming, songs and dances. Meals, including evening dinner of traditional foods, are provided by host nations. In preserving these traditions, mishoon racing is both part of Shinnecock history, and also the present.

Canoe racing made its first appearance at the 1936 Olympics, bringing international attention to the sport. But, of course, indigenous people the world over had been making and using canoes for many centuries prior. Since the 1630s, both in Southampton and farther afield, indigenous water rights have been challenged and taken away, so water remains a fluid reminder of the past and, to the Shinnecock, a human right. It is the lifeblood of the Shinnecock people.

Events like the Labor Day weekend’s Mishoon Race may be exhilarating experiences, reaffirming the Shinnecock’s responsibility as indigenous people to waterways everywhere, for all humanity. As the original stewards of the land, Native people are all too aware of global water crises like that of the Navajo tribe; Flint, Michigan; and most recently, Newark, New Jersey. These are examples of catastrophic environmental failures that Native people pray over during paddle gatherings.

Shinnecock ancestors were experienced whalers, and could navigate through the most treacherous waters. Coastal tribes have also utilized waterways as ancient highways for thousands of years. As the original population of the American Northeastern region, the Shinnecock have long faced European cultural assimilation, often making traditional culture difficult to practice. Paddle races like the Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon unify indigenous groups and communities, and preserve cultural customs — making them both encouraged and expected for our children, who today must live in and between two cultural worlds.

Alongside the Shinnecock, many other indigenous communities continue to hold paddle ceremonies in honor of their ancestors, and an opening call in the Shinnecock’s own Algonquin tongue, similar to the Pacific Northwestern Chinook tribe’s “Kanawi kanamakwst!” — “all together now!” — can sometimes be heard throughout the Northeast.

Races like the Wampanoag Paddle at Falmouth to Martha’s Vineyard, Passamaquoddy Paddle, Sly Fox Canoe Race, and Nimpuck Sacred Paddle from Deer Island through the Boston Harbor, include historical paddles from the Shinnecock territory of Long Island.

The Pequot and Mohegan tribal groups from Connecticut several years ago built the largest mishoon in over 400 years, which held 14 paddlers, and launched it on the Mystic River. It was powered by tribal members from the Wampanoag, Shinnecock, Narragansett, Schaghticoke and Pequot tribes.

Mr. Weaver says the Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon Race competition grows annually. “It’s beautiful to see everyone come out and enjoy the water, which is one of our medicines,” he said.

For more information on the Shinnecock Whalers Mishoon Races, visit www.gofundme.com/f/nnkk28, where donations will help cover costs associated with travel, race T-shirts, food and prizes.

Alli Hunter Joseph is a journalist, producer and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. She plans to work at becoming a winning paddler so she can teach her young children the art.

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