Discovering the Mohawk Culture of Akwesasne
By Bart Beeson
For Evan Cree, making a wooden lacrosse stick using traditional methods involves getting to know the piece of wood you’re working with. “I like to say that I take the stick and talk to it for a while,” he explains, while shaving down the piece of hickory with an old-fashioned draw knife passed down from his great uncle. At his lacrosse stick facility in northern New York, he walks us through each step involved in the stick making process, from splitting the log to shaving off the bark to drilling holes for the strings. We are given the chance to try our hands at putting the bend in the top of the stick to form the head, using sticks that have been in a steaming machine to make them pliable – something Evan makes look easy but proves more challenging than it appears.
A visit to Evan’s facility is one of the Mohawk cultural tours offered by the recently launched Akwesasne Travel organization, through which visitors can learn about Mohawk history, culture, art and cuisine. For my visit, the first thing I had to learn was some of the terminology. Akwesasne refers to the Mohawk nation territory that straddles the U.S.-Canada border, the New York portion of which is known as the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation. The Mohawks are one of the 6 nations that make up the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois. Akwesasne Travel was launched not only to educate others and attract tourism to the area, but to help preserve local traditions. As Akwesasne Tourism Industry Development Manager Penny Peters, explained, “Our history and our traditions are taught orally and many of the arts, like basket making and lacrosse stick making, are being lost due to the lack of people practicing it. Tourism can help artisans take their work beyond just a hobby to an actual sustainable business.”
Our tour started with a guided visit to the Akwesasne Cultural Center, which features a visual depiction of the Mohawk creation story, a 300-year-old dugout canoe, and the centerpiece of the museum, a traditional wampum belt known as the “Akwesasne Wolf Belt,” which dates back to the late 1700s. The cozy museum is a great introduction to the history of the Haudenosaunee people, with fascinating exhibits on lacrosse, which the Mohawk have played for centuries and continue to play today, both for sport and as a ceremonial, healing activity for the tribe.
Our next stop on the tour was a visit to Chill Baskets, with the owner and award winning basket maker Carrie Hill, a Haudenosaunee woman. Basket making has long been an integral part of the Akwesasne Mohawk identity and Carrie explained how the traditional process of basket weaving using black ash splints and sweetgrass has been passed down through her family for generations. As with the tour of the lacrosse factory, Carrie walked us through the process from the beginning, splitting black ash splints by hand until they are thin enough to be semi-transparent and showing us some of the different weaving techniques she uses. Carrie explained how she and other modern basket weavers are using traditional methods with a creative spin by experimenting with different techniques: “This generation I am a part of is changing the face of basketry.” At the end of the visit, we are given the chance to try a little weaving of our own, making bookmarks using small pieces of ash splint woven with sweetgrass – I managed to produce a somewhat lopsided version of Carrie’s design (I’m proud to report that it still functions perfectly well as a bookmark).
Before heading to Evan’s lacrosse stick factory, we stop for a traditional lunch prepared by Latoya Rourke of TLC Catering Akwesasne. As we eat, Latoya explains to us how the meal is influenced by foods that figure prominently in the Haudenosaunee creation story, specifically corn, beans and squash, known as the Three Sisters. Our lunch consisted of cornbread made with corn flour and kidney beans, beef with traditional gravy, and side dishes of green beans and butternut squash with maple syrup. Along with the accompanying drink made from strawberries and maple syrup, the meal proved to be educational, delicious and extremely filling.
My last stop of the weekend was the Native North American Travelling College or NNATC. Located on Cornwall Island in the St. Lawrence River, the NNATC lies in Ontario, although to get there from the U.S. you have to pass over the island to the mainland, go through Canadian customs and then turn around and go back onto the island. The NNATC is another museum dedicated to Haudenosaunee culture, with exhibits that span from pre-European contact to the present-day, and an impressive collection of traditional Mohawk baskets. My guide walked me through the exhibits, explaining how the museum, which recently reopened after a major renovation, has grown and expanded from its origins as a few exhibits housed in a VW van (hence the “Travelling College”).
Heading back home, I reflected on how, while I felt I had learned a lot about Haudenosaunee culture and history in 36 hours, I had just scratched the surface. The weekend was filled with fascinating tidbits of information too numerous to mention here, from how emerald ash borer beetles are making it harder to come by the black ash trees used for baskets, to how in the 1900s the Akwesasne Mohawk lacrosse stick makers once manufactured 97 percent of the world’s lacrosse sticks. It was an eye-opening experience that also made me realize how important cultural tourism can be to a community. As Penny Peters explained, “Cultural Tourism not only gives us the opportunity to share our story, from our indigenous perspective, but also provides pathways for our future entrepreneurs.”
Visit Akwesasne Travel for more details.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.