Legends of the Lake

Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from Fall 1988

Legends offer a more personal portrait of an area’s character than can conveyed by the facts and figures of pure history. The Nipmuck people of southern New England have preserved much of their sacred wisdom, philosophy and sense of cultural identity through the stories passed along orally from generation to generation.

Chaubunagungamaug (Webster Lake) was at the hub of all major trails between various tribal territories and was considered neutral ground even in times of conflict. Legends refer to the area as a sacred place or Manitoo-ock. Several stone sweat lodges can still be found in the vicinity of the lake.

It had not always been peaceful at Chaubunagungamaug. At one time there had been enmity between the three largest tribes in the area. Although they would not fight in the immediate vicinity of the lake there were frequent skirmishes in the forests and along the trails. To avoid serious conflict an agreement had been made giving the Mohegans access to the northern part of the lake, the Narragansetts would be permitted to use the southern waters and the Nipmucks would be allowed to use the middle body. This is the origin of the “I fish on my side, you fish on your side” version of the lake’s name.

Many years before the Europeans came, there was a courageous chief named Chatanook who was greatly admired not only by his Nipmuck people but by the neighboring nations as well. One spring when Chatanook was in one of the sweat lodges (pesuponcks) preparing for the Sesquanakeeswush (New Year’s ceremony) a vision came to him. He saw how the sacred lake had once been three separate waters but had come together as one great and beautiful body with a kindly and benevolent spirit. Wasn’t it the will of the lake’s manitoo that the three great nations should become one people?

Following his purification, Chatanook called a council of the Nipmuck, Mohegan and Narragansett leaders along with their wives and children. The sacred pipe was passed and prayers were offered. Then Chief Chatanook told of his vision of brotherhood and unity between the three nations. For three days the leaders shared their meals, exchanged gifts, smoked together and became good friends. On the evening of the third day the joint council met again and the Nipmucks, Narragansetts and Mohegans became as one people.

There is still peace and unity among these nations and each year when the New Year ceremony is observed the spirit of Chatanook visits the shores of Chaubunagungamaug to see that all is well with his people.

How the Nipmucks Got Their Name
“Nipmuck” is a derivative of the compound Algonquin word made of nippe (fresh water, as an inland lake or pond) and amaug (literally, “fish takenby a hook”). Prior to colonial times all of the inland tribes were spoken of as “fresh water” people in contrast to the coastal nations. The reference to “fish taken from an inland lake” (Nippeamaug) probably relates to the plentiful supply of fish in the sacred waters of Chaubunagungamaug.

Little Turtle is a medicine person of the Chaubunagungamaug clan. An artist, writer and craftsman of Nipmuck-Narragansett ancestory, he lives near Webster Lake in Dudley.

2007 Postscript: Little Turtle passed over to the spirit world in December, 2004. During his lifetime, he contributed much counsel and advice to Spirit of Change, as well as over 35 articles, letters, seasonal meditations, illustrations, photos and music review columns, beginning with this article in 1988 — our fourth issue — where a photograph of Little Turtle on the shores of Webster Lake was featured on our cover.