Indigenous History of Westwood, Massachusetts
Powisset Rock Shelter
Located near the border of Dover in what is now called Hale Education (formerly known as Hale Reservation), the Powisset Rock Shelter was a place where many Massachusett people lived during the winters, where they would leave the coast and stay further inland. Thomas Green, the Vice President of the Massachusett Tribe, conjects that the name Powisset may be a derivative of "powwow-set," which would mean "Place of the Powwow" ("Powwow" meaning Medicine Man, which is explained below, and "set" meaning place). It has a few inferred uses. There is a sign located at this site with information about its history and use, and it claims that its position and size makes it seem like a winter campsite, but it is not clear whether the information present on the sign is totally accurate.
Transcription of the Sign: The Powisset Rockshelter was a camp for Native Americans, and has been accurately dated back to the early 17th Century. The rockshelter received much of its use during the autumn, when its structure would protect the interior from the prevailing winds. The natives built a fire on the open edge of the shelter, which reflected the heat generated off the walls back into the occupied space and created a convection barrier against the cold at the entrance. In the ashes of the fire, bones, shellfish, and other remains of meals were found, most of which originated in a tidewater region to the east and was brought to and reheated at the site. The origin point of the food, along with the repeated use evident in the shelter, shows that the shelter was a stopover camp used in travels between the shore and shelter inland.
Faries Gray, the current Sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, said in conversation with Hale naturalists that this rocky outcrop may have been a ceremonial site. Thomas Green, the Vice President of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, surmised that this "may very well have been a site where a Massachusett Tribe powwow would have accepted visitors." Green stated that powwows (male) and powwusks (female) are titles that Medicine Men and Women would have held in the tribe (this is different from the common conception of the word powwow as a ceremony). In the springtime, many Bands of the Massachusett would gather together and wait for a time to talk to the powwow or powwusk. It would be a celebratory gathering, as people wouldn't have seen each other since the end of fall, and so during these times, people played music, and some danced, which is possibly why the word powwow was then misused by the English, who referred to the powwow as a gathering rather than a Medicine Man. Green also speculates that the Nahatan family (discussed in detail in the "Nahatan Street" section) were powwows, or Lesser Sac'hems, because of the status and respect that the Tribe gave them, and because the Tribe trusted them to sign land deeds.
It is likely that many more indigenous sites such as this one would be visible in Westwood if they had not been demolished by developers and the construction of roads. The geography of the Westwood area has changed significantly since it was colonized, so very few indigenous settlements in the Westwood area remain visible. Though much of the landscape has changed, members of the Massachusett Tribe remain very active in their communities, and their website will provide you with more information on their history as well as their current projects.
There are also many resources that provide information on the indigenous history of Hale Reservation. Shirley Sutton, a naturalist working at Hale Education, Inc., compiled a brief history of indigenous people who lived on the land that is now part of Hale Reservation in this document.
The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, http://massachusetttribe.org/.
"Powisset Plain and Indian Lands Map." Hale Education, Inc. Westwood Massachusetts.
Thomas Green. Interview with Izzy Feinfeld. August 2022.
“American Indian Powwows: Multiplicity and Authenticity - History.” Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, https://folklife.si.edu/online-exhibitions/american-indian-powwows/history/smithsonian