Savin Hill Mural — a look back into the Dorchester of 500 years ago— turns 15

Savin Hill 500 Years Ago— A mural by James Hobin.: This fall marks the 15th anniversary of the mural's installation and dedication at the corner of South Sydney Street and Savin Hill Avenue.Savin Hill 500 Years Ago— A mural by James Hobin.: This fall marks the 15th anniversary of the mural's installation and dedication at the corner of South Sydney Street and Savin Hill Avenue.

This fall marks the 15th anniversary of the Savin Hill mural. On Nov. 6, 1999, approximately 400 people turned up at the corner of South Sydney Street and Savin Hill Avenue for the dedication ceremony, which was officiated by Mayor Tom Menino. Toni Weeden performed traditional song for the unveiling.

The mural is painted on wood, and after 15 years of exposure to spring rains, winter frosts, and summer sunshine, evidence of wear and tear is beginning to show. Look closely and you will see that the mural has been repaired here and there. But we don’t care, like a patch on an old and favorite garment, it survives to be enjoyed for another day.

During the design phase, the tree on the sidewalk alongside the mural was given consideration. In the final composition, overhanging branches are painted in shadow at the top left corner, echoing the pattern of the real tree in front. Sometimes, while waiting for a table to become available at McKenna’s Cafe, patrons will stroll outside and lean against the tree; from the right angle, and in the right light, these people appear to be joined to the tableau on the wall behind them, becoming an integral part of this Dorchester version of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The title, “Savin Hill 500 Years Ago,” is about the time when Massachusetts Indians populated Dorchester. The mural shows that even as the people who make a community are always changing, the idea of community is something that never changes.

Toni Weeden’s father, the noted Native American historian Tall Oak, describes the mural like this:
“You see the freedom of the birds in flight, the waters that kiss the shore, the four-legged and two legged animals that shaped the space on our Mother, the Earth, with the mandatory respect that was essential to our survival – and still is. You see that all life is connected as you see the powerful Spirit Forces represented by the plant, animal, and mineral life, all sharing the same place, in harmony that we must continue to strive for, as the Creator intended. It is this connection between all life that must be acknowledged and appreciated, if we are to all survive. Look deep into this mural!”

From the Charles River in Boston to Plymouth, Indian tribes were members of a federation ruled over by Chikataubut, the Sachem of Passonagessit (Weymouth). This federation was also known as the Massachusetts. The Italian Giovanni Verranzano, who had sailed the Atlantic coast in 1524, recorded of New England’s natives: “This is the goodliest people and of the fairest condition that we have found in this our voyage…they are of a sweet and pleasant countenance.”

By custom, most New England Indians were villagers, and had been for centuries before the arrival of the people who came from “the land on the other side.” In the mural we see people in a village doing a variety of activities. Kids are playing; a mother cares for her infant; people are coming back to the family with food, while others are preparing a meal or doing a chore.

The Indians lived in a dwelling space called a weetu. For the framework, lithe saplings were set in the ground two or three feet apart in a circle. The saplings were gathered at the top and pulled down, forming an inverted bowl shape. The entire construction was then encased in swaths of tree bark, applied to the frame in the manner of overlapping shingles.

To fight mosquitos, the Indians covered themselves in bear fat. They also liked to paint their bodies with fantastic tattoos. There are accounts of Indians having the most outrageous hairdos, spending hours cutting, greasing, and combing their hair into fantastic shapes. To Europeans, it seemed that the Indians were strangely indifferent to winter chill.

Their technology was, but the Indians were clever and industrious. A canoe took months of labor in a continuous process of burning and scraping away at a large, straight log. To grind maize, a stone pestle was hung on a tree branch, which carried the stone’s weight and provided spring to the action of striking the mortar below.

Occasionally, people find Indian arrowheads fashioned from stone. If you touch the tip of one of these arrowheads, it is still sharp as a tack. But a skilled hunter also needed superhuman powers of endurance to be successful. Once the hunter first hit the mark, the pursuit could last days, with the hunter chasing on foot in the attempt to get close enough to let the fatal arrow fly. After that, there was a prayer for the animal and thanks for the food that was now provided for the community.

The Indians were good farmers who planted fields and little gardens everywhere. Hawks were tethered on a garden perch, attacking rabbits and other small animals that nibbled on the garden leaves. Of all the crops cultivated, the Indian prized tobacco, and knew its efficacy as a curative; for them it was a sacred plant. Tobacco was smoked in a lobster claw, or in pipes made from clay, sandstone, and soapstone.

During the summer, the Indians would gather at the seashore. Besides catching and curing fish, it was a time to enjoy social interaction in feasting and in sport. Any natural plane could serve as a playing field for a game that could go on for days and bring together hundreds of players. It is said that the gambling spirit ran very high in the Indians, although in the end, winner and loser were equally delighted with the contest.
The Indians traveled a network of trails that crisscrossed between cultivated fields, hunting grounds, and the numerous villages. Well-trodden paths were shoulder width and often had been worn deep by the passage of countless thousands of feet over centuries. Some trails led all the way to the top of Savin Hill, where you can still stand on the spot where the Indian once stood.

The Savin Hill mural was painted in 1999 by James Hobin with assistance from Joe McKendry, and student artists from the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club, including, Lauren Clark, Shane Hassey, Chau Nguyen, Halan Tran, and Rose Morgan.