Ottawa

Akwesasne launches cultural tours due to rising interest in Mohawk history

The Mohawk community in Akwesasne near Cornwall, Ont., has launched a new museum and a series of immersive cultural experiences for visitors wishing to understand more about the people and their traditions.

Akwesasne experts provide opportunity to learn about culture, experience traditions

Tourists gather around Evan Cree as he begins to shape a piece of wood into a lacrosse stick. (Submitted/Akwesasne Travel)

The Mohawk community in Akwesasne near Cornwall, Ont., has launched a series of cultural experiences for visitors wishing to understand more about the people and their traditions, spurred by the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

Akwesasne Travel launched two months ago following a surge in interest about its cultural history, according to manager Penny Peters.

The enterprise is the official destination marketing organization for Akwesasne based in New York.

Peters said the discovery of unmarked graves across Canada has increased interest in their culture and their history.

"It's brought a lot of light to Indigenous culture," said Peters. "People want to know about us and they want to hear from us."

Peters said well-meaning people have reached out for information about the cultural history of her people, but living Mohawks want to ensure they also make their mark when sharing stories and experiences.

"We might have helped in the creation of [a tour], but we weren't always there to represent it," she said. "We want to tell our story, from our territory and make sure it's accurate."

'We want to tell our story, from our territory and make sure it's accurate,' says Penny Peters, manager at Akwesasne Travel. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Lacrosse sticks, basket weaving

The experiences range from hands-on activities like trying to make a lacrosse stick and basket weaving, to touring a brand new museum with a fresh look at the Mohawk culture.

The Traditional Lacrosse factory gives visitors a sense of the process of steam-bending a piece of ash into the famous, crooked shape of a lacrosse stick.

Owner Evan Cree, whose great-grandfather started the company, also says it's important to protect the manufacturing of a key piece of equipment in the ancient game.

Visitors to Carrie Hill's basket weaving workshop will learn how black ash and sweetgrass are combined to make a delicate looking basket strong enough to carry thousands of kilograms of corn over its lifetime.

Since the process to make an entire basket might take days, most tourists will learn enough of the basic patterns and techniques to leave with their own sweetgrass bookmark.

WATCH | Mohawk community launches tourism enterprise amid rising interest in Indigenous culture

Mohawk community launches tourism enterprise amid rising interest in Indigenous culture

2 months ago
Duration 1:48
Penny Peters, manager at Akwesasne Travel, says there’s been new interest in Indigenous culture spurred by recent stories of unmarked graves at residential school sites, leading the group to launch a series of cultural experiences as a way of educating the public. 1:48
Carrie Hill prepares a strip of black ash for use in a traditional mohawk basket. (Submitted/Akwesasne Travel)

Sharing music, history of wampum belts

At the Native North American Travelling College, cultural educator Lorna Thomas has become an expert at explaining the complicated iconography of the elaborately beaded wampum belt. 

An important part of diplomacy and key in early colonial days, the 23-year-old explains to visitors how hundreds of one-centimetre-long seashells were first acquired in trades with Hurons and Algonquins, then laboriously shaped into hollow beads.

One wampum belt might take months to make.

"A lot of the belts that we preserve relate to treaties, agreements or alliances," said Thomas, pointing out how the investment of time underlined the sincerity of the contract.

Visitors can also hear cultural educator Karonhianonha Francis sing traditional music from her Mohawk culture.

Cultural educator Karonhianonha Francis says she enjoys singing for visitors. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Peters said cultural tours will help tell the story of how Mohawks flourished on the islands of the St. Lawrence long before Europeans began pulling their boats on shore and eventually drawing an international border through the middle of the territory.

"Since the beginning of time we've had tourism, we've welcomed people," she said.

"Tourism has always been a part of our culture."

now