Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Tribes In The Media: Massachusetts Tribe Building Long Houses

In the Tribes In The Media series, we are re-publishing an article on the Mashpee Wampanoag's construction of long-houses.

Building on an ancient tradition
Lyndeborough ash trees harvested for construction of Wampanoag long house

By Jessie Salisbury
The Cabinet
June 20, 2008

LYNDEBOROUGH — The thick bark from some of the large ash trees north of Lyndeborough’s mountains is now at the tribal lands of the Mashpee Wampanog on Cape Cod, part of a traditionally built long house for tribal use. The removal of the bark was done mostly in the traditional way by members of the tribe during a recent weekend.

The trees are owned by Hollis Proctor, who donated the bark to the project.

The Wampanoag are passing along their cultural traditions to the younger generation, something with which Proctor is familiar — he does things the way his father, Charlie Proctor, did them.

The Wampanoags and Proctor got together when Proctor and his wife Joyce visited Plimoth Plantation where they met Darius Coombs, the Plantation program director.

“We got to talking and I asked a lot of questions about the long house,” Proctor said. “How did they build it, what materials did they use, where did they get them.”

The outside of the huts is ash bark, and the Mashpee are having problems locating trees large enough, Coombs told him.

“I said, I have ash trees,” Proctor said, “and told them I was going to cut them for firewood.”

Coombs made the trip to Lyndeborough, found the trees were what they were seeking, and on a recent weekend a crew arrived to strip the bark in the traditional way … at least mostly. Proctor had cut the trees with a chain saw and the saw was used to make the first scoring on the log, cutting a groove through the bark on the top of the log.

Robert Peters, Sr., director of the Men’z Wetu Project (the Men’s House) conceded that his ancestors would have used chainsaws if they had had them. But the remainder of the process was traditional and done by hand.

Peters and his son, Robert, Jr., assisted by three other young men, interns on the project, used heavy chisels to gradually loosen the bark, moving along the groove, and then carefully worked it free of the log until it would be removed in one piece.

The bark is over an inch thick and quite heavy.

Peters said the bark can only be removed in the spring while the sap is rising. Later it adheres to the center of the trunk.

It also has to be flattened with weights and kept wet until it can be put onto the hut, usually a matter of days.

There was ceremony involved in the process. One man made a water drum, a small hand-held instrument of wood with a leather cover and filled with water from the site of the trees. During the removal of the bark he played the drum and chanted.

“It is done to honor the spirit of the trees,” Coombs said. “The drum carries a spirit with it.”

The new long house, which is a structure with a round roof much like a Quonset hut, is being constructed on tribal lands in Mashpee, Mass., Coombs said. It measures 20 by 14 feet and is 10 feet high at the center. When it is completed it will be used for social and cultural events, ceremonies and meetings.

Coombs said the frame had already been constructed of white cedar saplings, bent while fresh into the desired shape and lashed with strips of cedar bark. The ends of the frame pieces are charred in a campfire before being driven into the ground, a process which hardens and preserves them. A structure will last about 10 years, Coombs said. It takes several weeks to construct the frame.

“We are trying to keep the tradition alive among the young,” he added. “We might have a museum (on tribal lands) one day and these interns will be the instructors.”

Proctor donated the tree bark to the tribe.

“For me, it’s a win-win situation,” he said. “This doesn’t damage the logs and the peeled logs will last a couple of years, until somebody wants the lumber. I get the tops for firewood. I was going to cut the trees anyway, and I don’t really use the bark.”

Besides, he added, “that is the old way of doing things, bartering. I swap time and commodities with my neighbors. No money gets exchanged.”

Proctor owns and operates a small sawmill, doing small projects for area residents. He also has a small engine repair business and a woodworking shop.

Of the bark stripping, he said, “It’s very educational.”

He said he and his wife have been invited to Maspee for July 4 celebrations.

“We’ll see the bark installed,” he said.