In 1613, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain published his book “Les Voyages,” he labeled the area now called Gloucester, Massachusetts, as “le Beau port,” the beautiful port, because of the appeal of its natural harbor. On the land surrounding the harbor, he identified more than a dozen indigenous huts standing amidst farm fields.

I couldn’t help thinking of that illustration when visiting the wetu, a traditional indigenous rounded dwelling, that the Wampanoag curatorial firm SmokeSygnals, with support from the local partners, erected at the Cape Ann Museum Green in Gloucester on May 5 and 6. The tree branch framing stands on the wide lawn between three 1700s buildings owned by the museum.

The construction is part of “Native Waters; Native Lands,” itself part of Gloucester’s plans to mark the 400th anniversary of three ships arriving from England in 1623, bringing European settlers hoping to colonize the land and fish for cod. “Native Waters; Native Lands,” organizers say, is intended to “highlight how Native communities live, travel, and fish in this region both historically and today.”

The museum projects are in collaboration with the Gloucester 400+ Anniversary Committee, Discover Gloucester, the City of Gloucester, and SmokeSygnals.

French explorer Samuel de Champlain's rendering of “le Beau port"--now Gloucester, Massachusetts--published his 1613 book “Les Voyages."
French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s rendering of “le Beau port”–now Gloucester, Massachusetts–published his 1613 book “Les Voyages.”

Champlain is believed to have encountered some 200 Pawtucket people during his second sailing voyage here in 1606. But by 1617, diseases brought by English settlers would kill three quarters of the indigenous population in what’s now Massachusetts.

SmokeSygnals plans to create a mushoon (a traditional wooden dugout canoe) at Gloucester’s Stage Fort Park for “A Celebration of Place: The Cultural Heritage Festival” presented by the Gloucester 400+ Anniversary Committee on Oct. 7 and 8, 2023. Following the festival, the boat and wetu will be displayed together at the Cape Ann Museum Green through 2025.

Traditionally the tree branch beams of wetus would be clad in reeds or bark. The one at the museum hasn’t been covered, but next year the museum hopes to work with SmokeSygnals and an indigenous artist, who will create “a contemporary artwork skin covering for the piece.”

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Categories: Art