Indigenous wisdom, poetry and history guide community event at Malden River

A blessing ceremony at the Malden River on 9-24-22. (Photo by Suzann Goldberg)

By Anne D’Urso-Rose

I know that our ancestors are really happy for the work that we’re doing. It’s been a 400-year fracture – with colonization and assimilation – and it’s really going to take all of us to come together, in ways like this, to bring balance back to the land and to the water.

Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr. – Malden, MA, 9-24-22

As the country recognizes indigenous Peoples Month this November, Neighborhood View reflects on a recent community event that embodied the spirit of remembering, understanding and connecting with Native people, history and culture.

Malden Mayor Gary Christenson (right) reads a citation to Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr., a citizen of the Nipmuc people and cultural steward for his Tribe, while his nephews (Tall Hair Red Deer and Wandering Turtle) look on.

“Words on the Water” (morning) and “Project Misik” (afternoon) was a combined day-long event on Sept. 24 in a spot along the banks of the Malden River that is generally hidden from public view. In that space, more than 200 residents, a sampling of Malden’s diverse community, gathered over the course of the day to take part in an Indigenous blessing ceremony, paddle canoes on the waterway, share a meal of Haitian food from “The Island” restaurant, and learn how to drum and dance to music of the African diaspora with Project Misik, an arts-based organization that promotes healing and connection through music and dance. 

“The day was about connecting with the water, earth and each other. This was the beginning of a lifelong journey for the community,” said Erga Pierrette, a committee member of Malden Reads and a steering committee member of Malden River Works.

The day began with a poem by longtime Malden educator and civic leader Bill Dempsey and read by Dempsey and Malden Mayor Gary Christenson. Dempsey was a former principal of the Linden School, a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal for Valor during World War II, and was one of the first soldiers to liberate Dachau, the German concentration camp. Below is an excerpt of his poem about the Malden River. Click to see the full text.


by Bill Dempsey

A clear and deep blue sky lies overhead today

Its crystal bright beauty lights our way.

The calm gleaming waters in solemn stillness lie,

While overhead, white puffy clouds float by.

And what is this quiet pastoral scene?

It is the Malden River here, beautifully clean.

Aye, factories were once present, and bravely they stood,

As it turned their paddle wheels, as a good river should.

(See full text of poem here)

Though the river described in the poem as “beautifully clean” is still aspirational, its current state is a far cry from the days of active pollution by factories and mills. The Malden River today is a waterway covered over by manmade asphalt through much of the city and runs behind privately-owned commercial properties elsewhere. 

A view of the Malden River from behind the DPW yard. The Encore Casino is in the distance. (Photo by Suzann Goldberg)

For many of the city’s residents, the river was unknown or forgotten about for many decades. But recent efforts to highlight this natural resource, restore its health and vitality, and make it accessible to the public have been accomplished by several community-based groups, largely led by the Friends of the Malden River, the Mystic River Watershed Association, and Malden River Works.

Photo by Suzann Goldberg

Malden Reads, the community-based “One City, One Book” program, was looking for a place to hold its capstone event for the 2022 program. This year’s book selection “An American Sunrise,” is a collected work of poetry by Joy Harjo, a three-term national poet laureate and a Native woman. The goal of the event was to capture the themes of the 2022 program – a celebration of poetry, appreciation of land and nature, the importance of community, and the challenging, brutal history of Native people in America. 

“For this event, we wanted to connect with Indigenous tribes in a meaningful way and share that connection with our community,” said Jodie Zalk, a Malden Reads co-facilitator. 

Morning attendees assemble along the river for a blessing ceremony led by Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr. (Photo by Suzann Goldberg)

Zalk worked closely with Erga Pierrette to make connections with local Indigenous tribes, with the help of Chief Daniel StrongWalker Thomas, of the Leni Lenape people (known as the Delaware Nation). StrongWalker Thomas serves as Chief Servant Leader for the Global Initiative for Indigenous Advancement and was a colleague of Pierrette’s at Salem State University, where the two initially met.

Malden Reads chose to hold the event in the exact location along the Malden River that is slated to become a climate resistant, fully accessible waterfront park. Over a number of years, planning and design for the park has been led, with significant community input, by Malden River Works, a coalition of community leaders of color, environmental advocates, and government stakeholders with support from MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. The area, which is located behind the Malden Department of Public Works building on Commercial Street, has a path with access to the river and a small boathouse used by the Malden High School rowing team.

Above, Girl Scouts, under the leadership of citywide coordinator Denise Keating, were encouraged to write poetry related to the event for the Poet Tree. Click on the images to read the sample of poems. (Photos by Jodie Zalk)

As the planning unfolded for the event, Malden Reads joined forces with Project Misik, a group that specializes in creating “yards” in diverse communities that celebrate and center BIPOC (Black, Indigeonous, and People of Color), with music that retraces routes of forced exile and cultural resistance. Their events, which includes one held in Malden in June, are joyful events of community connection, bridging cultures, generations and backgrounds through the power of music and movement.

Karen Buck, president of Friends of the Malden River, made the suggestion to combine the Malden Reads event with a second Project Misik event being planned in Malden. Kera Washington, founder of Project Misik, immediately jumped on the idea.

“I remember seeing Kera’s eyes widen when we talked about the two groups combining for the event. She saw the potential from the beginning,” said Buck.

Elo Deneus, development manager for Project Misik reflected, “It absolutely made sense for us to connect. Both groups connect to different groups in the Malden area, so us coming together brought the two groups we connect with together.”

Music and dancing facilitated by Project Misik. (Photo by Suzann Goldberg)

The City of Malden became a collaborative partner in the effort to present this daylong event along with Malden Reads, Project Misik, Friends of the Malden River, the Mystic River Watershed Association and Malden River Works.

“The city helped in so many ways to support this project. Getting permits, providing signage, getting the space cleaned and the landscape spruced up, anything we needed,” said Jodie Zalk.

Mayor Christenson said, “We wanted to be a part of this event because of the vision it provided for the future of the Malden River. The vision to unite the use of the Department of Public Works site with an accessible, inclusive and climate resilient waterfront will be a game changer for the area. But the day proved to be much more than that. From reading a poem about the Malden River written by 98-year-old Veteran and former Linden School Principal, William Dempsey, to meeting Andre StrongBearHeart Gaines, Jr. and learning about his culture, traditions and our true history, to joining Andre in a ceremony honoring water and the Malden River, the entire experience was both moving and inspiring.”

When reached for comment the following week, Maria Luise, special assistant to the Mayor, said, “We haven’t stopped talking about the event!” The mayor has plans to invite StrongBearHeart Gaines to Malden’s city hall for a tour and to maintain an on-going relationship with him so that “we can better understand Indigenous culture and traditions and in turn bring that knowledge to our community.” The mayor’s goal is to include the superintendent in a discussion of what can be done in the city’s schools about culturally responsive instruction and/or organized events focused on indigenous history and communities.

From left, William Dempsey, Mayor Gary Christenson, Peter Caso (“All About Malden” Facebook group), Jodie Zalk (Malden Reads), Glenn Cronin (Malden Police Chief), Maria Luise (Special Assistant to the Mayor) and Bill Sullivan (Malden Fire Chief). Photo by Suzann Goldberg.

“I thank you for that poem,” StrongBearHeart Gaines said to Dempsey after the poem was read. “You spoke about the memory of the water. And there is – there’s a spirit. We have a saying in Nipmuc [speaks in Nipmuc]. This is a language that is thousands of years old. And what it’s saying is that we have to live for that water because water lives for us. And if we don’t acknowledge it in that way, then we perish as well. Water is our first medicine. It’s that first water that we’re born into, in that placenta. It’s that water that kept us alive for those nine months that then stepped us into this world. So, as we continue to not acknowledge water, we’re not acknowledging the complete essence of life as a whole.”

StrongBearHeart Gaines led the crowd down to the banks of the river for a blessing ceremony. He acknowledged that the river was “still sick” and needed our help to restore it to its natural state, as it was many years before, before the effects of commercial industry (and “all the slag their manufacturing clumped,” as Dempsey’s poem describes.)

Photo by Suzann Goldberg

Jodie Zalk reflects, “Andre StrongBearHeart took us down to the river, where everyone connected in a human chain, where people who weren’t able to touch the river could hold the hand of someone else, which was a beautiful metaphor for community. He shared that we should take care of the water because it takes care of us, and what resonated with me deeply was when he asked us to look around at each other and ask ourselves if we can count on each other as members of a community to be there for each other. His powerful messages, sharing history, and connections resonated throughout the day.”

Items used in ceremony. (Photo by Suzann Goldberg)

In a clearing at the top of the path, StrongBeartHeart Gaines led a sacred fire ceremony, this one (by request) not recorded by photos or videos. He spoke about the elements of fire, water, land and air, and the healing properties of the natural world. He reminded the gathering of the brutal treatment of Native people by the colonizers, how Native people are still here, living with their complicated history, today raising awareness of that history which has been glossed over by the descendants of those who came to these shores as colonizers. He talked about the Native philosophy of making choices that consider the next seven generations, instead of immediate profit or gain. He led a stomp dance afterwards, a chain of Malden residents stomping on the asphalt that may one day be a park, intentionally welcoming and accessible to all, and representing a healthier future for our city. 

Edmond Chen of the YMCA Leader Corps, a group that helped out in a myriad of ways throughout the day, said, “I thought that the event overall was very unifying for us as a community. The blessing ceremony was a great way to celebrate our distinct cultures and diversity together, and I speak for myself and our volunteers when I say that the event itself was a very fun, welcoming, and inclusive experience.” 

Elo Deneus of Project Misik added, “It was a beautiful day to make history in Malden”

About annedr 50 Articles
Anne D'Urso-Rose is the Associate Director at Urban Media Arts in Malden. She is the coordinator and a contributing journalist for Neighborhood View.

1 Comment

  1. A memorable day on the Malden River! The community danced to the Malden River to bless and enjoy! We certainly met our mission to bringing people to the site of our upcoming Waterfront Park! Thank you to All!

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