Tales From Granny Squannit: Honoring The Spirit Of The Traditional Herring
By JOAN TAVARES AVANT
Even though it has been cold, the time for the centuries-old herring migration continues. The fish have left the Atlantic Ocean and have arrived. They are here.
I was told by Karen Hendricks, Mashpee Wampanoag, that Mashpee River has been black with them, meaning there are plenty coming upstream to spawn. The herring peepers have been singing, also. Have your net ready! They are also dropping in Santuit, Johns Pond and Quashnet River.
Mary Chris dropped in and she said, “The Coonamessett River runs through the cranberry bogs off of John Parker Road. There are paths that run over the herring run. Last year myself and other volunteers did the herring count and took the temperature of the water. We saw other water species, such as the otter, swimming with the herring.”
Chief Vernon (Silent Drum) Lopez says that when the herring are coming, “They’re like good medicine and it’s time for spring. When I was younger (he is 95 years young now), I lived by the river and went every day looking for them and still do.”
Deacon Wayne (Big Oak) Jackson said the other day that when he was a youth it seemed commercial to him when he saw nonnative people coming to the Mashpee River to catch herring with a fishing rod. “We taught them how to catch herring with a net or with their hands, as we did. This is a tradition we need to retain—by teaching our children and grandchildren—so the next seven generations can at least enjoy fried herring and dumplings with a smile.”
Medicine Man Earl (Soaring Eagle) Cash Jr. notes: “We have been having a ceremony for years in honor of the herring. When I was younger, the women brought food to the ceremony and declared, ‘Happy New Year, spring is here!’ ”
Minister Freddy (Standing Oak) Gray divinely mentions, “There is nothing under the sun which will move around again as is the new life journey of the mighty herring. As the Creator calls Mother Earth to make its journey around the sun and return to the same place a year later like the herring.”
Our ancestors and elders taught us how to listen to the songs of the peepers and watch carefully for the osprey, hawks and seagulls flying stylishly above in the sky. They have their melodies, also. It may be amusing if you stop for a moment and listen.
Herring are a Wampanoag cultural food for sure. This elder is ready for herring roe, fried herring, smoked herring, pickled herring and cornmeal dumplings.
Ernestine (Gentle Wind) Gray, who lived from 1928 to 2005 and was an admired Mashpee Wampanoag storyteller and historian, wrote a poem relevant about herring.
When I see river banks dusted with snow.
I wonder how the herring know
The time is right.
For their perilous plight
The struggle upstream perhaps at night
Tree toads start peeping
While we are sleeping.
As scouts-stand watch while they scream
Herring in abundance fill pond and stream.
At dawn seagulls begin to circle
Each river creature-even slow turtle
Makes room for nature’s annual yields
From ocean to sand dune, through boggy field
Full with offspring bare to prey.
Occasional wind gust aid to their journey
Tomorrow may be warm, the next day cold.
But nature plans well, preparations unfold.
There’s much to combat along the way.
And I wonder how many made it today.
A love and respect for lifetime by being close to the river herring has been instilled in the blood and soul of many Wampanoag, including the Aquinnah Wampanoag, past and present for many moons. The worthiness of the river herring will never leave, as the peepers have been singing. That’s my best guess; also, because my Grandpa Mr. George Avant is still looking down from Heaven at the river he once protected for many years as herring warden. Some Wamps call the herring their cousins—Hey, Cuz!
Of Special Note
There will be a Herring Celebration on Thursday, April 19, at 10 AM at Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum, 414 Main Street.
Joan Tavares Avant, M.Ed., is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Wampanoag Deer Clan mother, and a former director of the Mashpee School District’s Indian Education Program. She can be reached at email@example.com.