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More than a Mishoon: Andre Strongbearheart Gaines Jr. and Tom Green on Indigenous Cultural Revitalization

Grace Ramsdell

| 12 min read

On October 31 at Charlestown’s Little Mystic Boat Ramp, Andre Strongbearheart Gaines, Cultural Steward of the Nipmuc Tribe, working in partnership with Thomas Green, Indigenous Artist & Educator of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, welcome all for the first burn and launch of a traditional mishoon (canoe) in the city limits of Boston in countless generations. This intertribal collaboration seeks to acknowledge teachings and foster cultural revitalization and continuity between sister tribes, educate Greater Boston in the indigenous ways of stewarding these lands and waters, and bring healing and medicine through this collective creative act. Olmsted Now talked more with Andre and Tom about their project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Warning: This interview contains descriptions of murder and violence against Indigenous people under the laws of colonial Boston.

Could you introduce yourselves? How would you describe your project? 

Andre Strongbearheart Gaines Jr.: [Andre says a greeting in his language.] I always speak in our language first because for so many years, it’s been illegal to. So, I just wanted to say good afternoon, my name is Andre Strongbearheart from the Nipmuc nation. I’m always honored to be able to brush shoulders with our sister communities and be able to do works that create cultural revitalization and preservation so that we can step out of this fracture of 400-year assimilation. 

Tom Green: I think that the main goal for Andre and I for this project is not only better inter-tribal relations, but better relations for both of our tribes with the public as well. A lot of the public don’t realize that there are still Indigenous people—local Indigenous—around. That’s one of the things that I’m kind of keen on, is sharing that and education. This project will ultimately revitalize Indigenous culture, will help to do so, as well as act as a vehicle of education for the greater public at large. We’re going to be doing it in a public space, with the hopes that the public will be stopping by and asking questions about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and we can share that information with them. I’m a strong believer that one of the reasons why so many different factions—whether it be different religions or ethnic groups, any kind of organizations, or two different people—have a hard time getting along is because of ignorance. They don’t know enough about each other. So, I like to be able to spread education about the Indigenous population, both the past and present. 

It will be a collaboration between the Nipmuc and the Massachusett tribes. So, Andre and I will both be the lead artists on this project. We have a few tribal members that also are versed in and familiar with Indigenous crafting that have made it clear that they want to be directly involved with the actual project. I think we have somewhere between 10 and eighteen tribal members between both of our tribes that have confirmed that they want to be involved, so we have a pretty decent number—not all at once. This project will take days to complete. So, they’ll be coming in and leaving. Either Andre or myself will always be there with the project. And then there’ll be other people that are both in my tribe, the Massachusett tribe, and the Nipmuc tribe that will be assisting us, as well as people to support that don’t really feel comfortable working directly on the project. They’ll be there in a support capacity, you know, bringing us food and supplies and things like that, coming and keeping us company and learning themselves. With people that don’t feel comfortable directly taking part in the project, a lot of them will show up just to watch what’s being done, and maybe the next time they’ll be more comfortable with being more directly involved. That’s something that we’re hoping to accomplish as well. 

Andre’s done projects like this in the past, whereas I am more of a newcomer to it. Especially where there’s this sort of process involved for grants and stuff. A lot of the stuff that I’ve done in the past didn’t require all of this, it was just stuff that my tribe did, not necessarily with any fanfare. Andre’s gone above and beyond to make sure that this is a true collaboration, that we’re always on the same page and working on everything together. 

Why do parks need more equity and spatial justice programming? How does your program speak to that need in Boston parks? 

ASG: Tom, I don’t want to speak over you, it’s your territory. Do you want to speak on this? If you want me to speak on it, I’ll speak on it as well right now, but I don’t want to speak over you. That’s important. 

TG: That being said, even though you’re right, this is Massachusett homeland, your voice is just as important. I’d like for both of us to answer. 

That would be great. 

TG: My answer to that question is just to create that equity. That it’s not there. It doesn’t exist. That’s what we’re trying to do with projects like this, and in creating that equity, you also create spatial justice. Right now, you can go to any number of parks in Boston and see signage, probably about why the park’s there, who created the park, so on and so forth. But you don’t hear or see or learn a lot about the original people that used that space or what that space may have been used for. That’s one of the reasons why projects like this are necessary. Not only that, but to create a precedent for us being in our traditional spaces—the traditional spaces that are left. By traditional, I mean spaces that have not been developed, that have been conserved or preserved. With the Massachusett tribe, one of our main objectives is to preserve what’s left and what hasn’t been developed. I think the same could go for just about any Indigenous tribe in North America. We want to be in those green spaces. We want to be able to educate on our history and continued presence in those spaces. 

ASG: That was well said, Tom. Thank you for that. If I could speak a little bit about what society thinks equity is these days: You know, I think sometimes that can get misconstrued, about what our people always knew to be equity, rather than what society deems to be equity these days. Equity to us traditionally: food sovereignty, we’re talking about being able to have cultural practices, we’re talking about being able to come together for all of our thanksgivings. See, society in today’s day and age only considers one thanksgiving a year. We had a thanksgiving every single day we woke up, every time we walked past a medicine plant or were able to come sing by the rivers. 

For us, as two state-recognized tribes, to be able to come together in cultural revitalization—this is more than social justice. This is literally going against the grain and what the state deems to be what’s equitable for them or for the foreseeable future for particular land parcels. See, they don’t have any reciprocal relationship to the land in the ways that we do. This is something that I deal with DCR [Department of Conservation and Recreation] a lot with, and the state a lot with, as I go through the forest and catalog our sustainable health. 

I’m looking at vernal pools and I’m having this dialogue with these medicine plants, and I’m also seeking food throughout our territories. So, when I think about equity, it’s not at all what society thinks about what equity is when it comes to a park. See, they put grants together and they do all these things so that the turf is nice and green, so that they make sure that nobody is staying out there or sleeping on these places. They put up funds to make sure that [there are] no «homeless» there. Although, you know, our people never believe in [that]—there’s no such thing as homeless. Like, we live on Earth, so we all have a home here. The only thing that we’d be broken from is community. And if we don’t have community, we don’t know how to build our traditional longhouses or have the time to come together like we want to and burn out a canoe…  

So, homelessness, you know, they actually put up the funds to make sure no «homeless» people are living in these areas. Why? So that they can either build another apartment building right near it [for] these folks who’ve created gentrification, so our folks can’t even live near that piece of water and a little bit of green that is left in Boston. It’s really sad, and it needs to be addressed further and further. I mean, if you ask me, what would be equitable is to take down some of these triple-deckers and big buildings and create more space for the Indigenous peoples and for the people that are here nowadays. That would be more equitable than fighting us to even be in these places, to have cultural revitalization or preservation. It’s really heavy, and it’s more than social justice. It’s imperative we’re able to step back into these spaces and be who we’re supposed to be here. If not, then the state and colonization is still creating assimilation in 2022. 

TG: I think something that is noteworthy to bring up is just the fact that—I’m sure that there were Nipmuc in the Boston area all the time prior to colonization, but that being said, in 1675, colonists enacted a law prohibiting Massachusett, Wampanoag, or any Indigenous person, for that matter, from entering the city limits of Boston without an English to escort them. And if you were found within the city limits after this law was enacted, then the penalty was to be hung by the neck until you were dead. This law wasn’t repealed until 2004. So, this is another reason why it’s so important for the Indigenous people to be able to be in these spaces, doing what our ancestors did, carrying on and continuing their tradition and the culture that they were able to keep that wasn’t stripped from them. That’s why it’s so important—just the fact that it was illegal for us to even be here. When you put it in perspective like that, it heightens the importance of projects like these. 

ASG: Until 2004, it was illegal for us to even come in—why did it take that long for the laws to change? Why are we just now considering why the state flag should be changed? All these things. That’s why I always start off speaking our language, because we would have been beheaded. Our ancestors—our grandmothers and grandfathers, not even our ancestors, just not that long ago—couldn’t speak our language. So, any chance I get, I speak our language, because it was illegal for us to do that. If we were to do that, there was a bounty for our heads to be put on a pike down at Faneuil Hall, that cool marketplace that everybody buys those fancy sandwiches at now. You know, it was once a time that it was a marketplace for people. So, it’s important to acknowledge that. 

TG: We want people to understand the marginalization, the taking away of our culture—how current that is. My great grandmother—I mean, I knew this woman, she babysat me when I was a kid—she was taken from her mother so she would not learn the culture. So she would forget her connection to her ancestral land. She was raised with a nice, white, Christian-praying family in New Hampshire. And you know what? They did a great job, cause when she turned 18, she moved back to her ancestral territories—she moved to Brockton—and founded a church! That’s how recent this kind of assimilation and colonization is still upon us. It’s still here. Still dividing us. Still trying to strip away keep away our culture. It’s still doing that. A lot of people don’t realize that colonization isn’t still alive and rampant just in other parts of the world. It’s right here. Every time Andre and I are told «no,» that we can’t be in our traditional, ancestral spaces, colonization continues. 

ASG: It’s important to speak that it’s masked in different ways now. Instead of putting our heads on pikes and hanging us in the town square, they created these bureaucratic laws and rules and regulations and [they] gatekeep. They’ve gotten really strategic in the ways that they create division between the federal-recognized and state-recognized tribes. It’s really heavy. And I think that that’s why this mishoon is much more than just burning out a mishoon, which is a beautiful thing. [It’s] two tribes coming together. This is very layered—this is like an onion, this project, and what it’s going to do is unravel all the way down to the core of how sick and twisted colonization, especially within Boston City Limits, still is ‘til today. 

What final few words would you use to capture the essence of your program? 

ASG: “Local Indigenous cultural revitalization and public education.” 

TG: We want the public to be informed, we want them to understand what we’re doing, why we’re there doing it, and for them to embrace that, to embrace us being in our traditional space, doing what we need to be doing. 

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