Akwesasne Travel wants to educate visitors about Mohawk culture

Catherine WheelerAkwesasne Travel wants to educate visitors about Mohawk culture

On a warm day back in September, a small group of people step onto a pontoon boat on the St. Lawrence River, hair blowing in the wind. The sky is blue and the sun sparkles off the water. 

“Welcome everyone to Mohawk Journeys. My name is Chessie and I’ll be your tour guide today,” Chessie Thomas tells the boat. Thomas owns Mohawk Journeys, a boat tour company that offers fun days out on the water with family or friends, and now, cultural cruises.

Akwesasne Travel wants to educate visitors about Mohawk culture

Kelly Tsierihwaiens Back presents her work for a small tour. Back makes beaded loom belts, kastowah headbands and more. Photo: Akwesasne Travel

A travel writer from Massena, a tour guide from New York City, and some St. Lawrence University officials all sit on the boat taking in Akwesasne from the water. It’s part of a familiarization tour Akwesasne Travel planned to practice new tours they’ve been working on. But getting on a boat is a common way to show visitors Akwesasne.

We glide right along the international border and start learning the history of Akwesasne. Thomas points out the St. Lawrence Seaway shipping channel in the distance. Centuries before the Seaway was dredged, there was more land and it was an area where Mohawks and Europeans would frequently meet.

“You have to remember this land has changed with the Seaway,” Thomas says. “They came in a dug this all out to be able to create this. So this was not here way back then. This was land. This is where people’s homes were.”

Throughout the trip, Thomas shouts out any landmark that she has a story about. It’s nearly constant.

She points out a small, overgrown island on the St. Lawrence River.  “This island right here used to have goats on it,” she said. “First there were two goats, and then there were 10 goats.” 

Then she shows us the shoreline, where freighters’ wakes are eroding the land. “We’re losing a lot of land each year with bigger boats, no wake zones, things like that,” she said. 

Photo: Catherine Wheeler

Photo: Catherine Wheeler

This is exactly how Akwesasne Travel wants visitors to learn about who the Mohawk are.

“We’re really a place of connections, whether you’re talking about how the river connects the two countries together, whether you’re talking about how the people connect with each other, or the land or the water,” said Randi Barreiro, Akwesasne Travel’s marketing specialist.

Akwesasne Travel is the tourism arm of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. It’s under the tribe’s Office of Economic Development. 

Three years ago, the group created cultural tours to educate visitors about Akwesasne on the community’s own terms. Barreiro says that means highlighting locals as the experts they are.

“It’s very important to show what our community is capable of,” she said. “We have so many entrepreneurs and business owners in our community that it feels like a natural progression to develop something to invite people who want to learn more about us and involve the people who do these things for a living.” 

The tours are hands-on. You can weave black ash baskets with an award-winning basket maker. You can see how a traditional lacrosse stick is made. You can hear the Mohawk creation story at the museum. 

Barreiro says the tours are meant for small groups. They want visitors to walk away having been an active part of the experience.

“We want people to always be in the front row, able to ask questions or hear every word that’s said,” she said. “We’re sharing some language, Mohawk language, and we don’t want that to go over someone’s head because they weren’t standing close enough.”

Mohawk Journeys takes a small group on a cultural tour on the water near Akwesasne. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

Mohawk Journeys takes a small group on a cultural tour on the water near Akwesasne. Photo: Catherine Wheeler

LaToya Rourke builds the tours from the ground up. As Akwesasne Travel’s training manager, she teaches artists and business owners to become tour hosts.

“I always say it almost feels like counseling at first because they don’t see the value in themselves yet,” Rourke said. 

Sometimes Rourke is working with an artist who has never sold their work at a market, or she’s helping an established business owner figure out the best way to demonstrate their craft.

Rourke says she teaches them how to do it all over a few sessions. They work on crafting their stories for tours, pricing, and marketing. She says it’s rewarding to see her neighbors grow.

“When they’re in this first phase, where you’re still empowering them to see the value in themselves as artists, and then when you see them start doing tours, it’s almost like they’re your family and you’re seeing them grow,” Rourke said. “It’s good to see them be proud of who they are, what they do, and the work they do.”

Rourke says the tour hosts are paid for all their work, including prep time and clean up. She says that sometimes surprises the tour hosts. 

“They’re like, no one ever includes my prep, no one ever includes my time or no one even includes me as an hourly rate,” Rourke said. “I say no, you’re the professional, you’re the expert, so all the years of experience that you gained goes into what you’re demonstrating in your tour and your experience. And they just get blown away by that because it’s a whole other level of appreciation.”

Kelly Tsierihwaiens Back owns Fire Loom Creations. She makes custom beaded loom belts, kastowah headbands for ceremonies, and more. One day, she heard Rourke was looking for new tours and got in touch with her.

Kelly Tsierihwaiens Back owns Fire Loom Creations and works with her husband on the custom pieces. Photo: Akwesasne Travel

Kelly Tsierihwaiens Back owns Fire Loom Creations and works with her husband on the custom pieces. Photo: Akwesasne Travel

“[Rourke] was like, ‘You know what? We were thinking of you hoping you would come to us. Let’s start.’ And I said, ‘okay,'” Back said. 

Back hosts tours in her backyard. During them, she shares how her business grew out of making a belt and kastowah headband for her husband on their wedding day.

“I have a little loom kit all set up for them and all the materials that they need,” she said. 

While she teaches the visitors how to loom a two-row wampum belt, she explains why they’re making this design and the evolution of the materials and beads used to make the belts.

“We help them finish it so that it becomes a bracelet for them. So they get a little piece to take home that they’ve made on their own,” Back said. 

Back says the community benefits when they’re able to share these parts of their culture.

“I feel like it’s an honorable position to have, to be a host and a teacher of something to do with our culture,” Back said. “I really find that’s a pretty big honor. And fun at the same time because it’s something I love to do. And I get to do it in my own home, in my backyard, with my family. I mean, can’t get any better than that.”

Rourke says Akwesasne Travel isn’t following a blueprint for growing the tribe’s tourism economy.

She says they’re doing it the right way: putting their community first and providing meaningful support to budding and established entrepreneurs.

Rourke says building the cultural tours is about taking back their power.

“A lot of times, First Nation or tribal communities, the narrative that’s being told isn’t always told by us firsthand,” Rourke said. “And a lot of times it’s negative, right? It’s the negative part of our community. Every place, town or state has that. But it shouldn’t always be spotlighted. And we have so many great cultural experiences and stories to be told.”

Barriero says Akwesasne Travel is a part of working on plans to create a cultural center and museum—a bigger space to house art and where the community and visitors can come and learn about the Mohawk past and present.