Group working to bring 'cultural tourism' to Akwesasne
Sunday, March 2, 2014 - 9:17 am

Theresa Bear Fox, left and Susan Fuller of Fuller Communications review documents from the Akwesasne Strategic Plan for Cultural Tourism, which is aimed at spurring Mohawk arts and teaching its heritage.

By ANDY GARDNER

AKWESASNE -- A contingent made up of Mohawk artists, a tribal official and two outside experts from Fuller Communications are trying to bring cultural tourism to the territory, but at the same time balance the community’s desire to keep some of its traditions to itself.

Although the plan won’t be finalized until May, the group wants to bring the Akwesasne Strategic Plan for Cultural Tourism to life. It was drawn up of community input from 500 respondents. Some of the ideas floating around involve bringing in visitors who will help support the local economy and at the same time learn what Mohawk heritage and culture is really about.

“It would be a great opportunity to show them what [Mohawk culture] is all about, what’s the truth,” Lindsay Tarbell of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Office of Economic Development. “We don’t want to be seen as just gaming.”

The plan has several support pillars, including establishing a cultural education center and coordinating with local artists. The group that met on Saturday talked about possibly going after a property on state Route 37C known as Tsiionkwanontiio, a 30-acre plot on the St. Regis River that includes a three-story house.

Tarbell said although she would want a cultural center to showcase all things Mohawk, it would have to balance with the community’s need to keep some of its traditions to itself.

“There’s a limit to what our community wants to share, and there should be,” she said. “It’s about finding that balance.”

Filfred Tahy of the Akwesasne Arts Council cited the longhouse to which he belongs. He said he brings his family there when they visit, but its ceremonies are strictly off-limits to non-natives. Tarbell said she would like to see teachings such as the Ohenton Karihwatehkwen, or Thanksgiving Address shared with the world. It is a way to express greetings and thanks to all of the natural world and to remind people that they are connected and just one spoke in a grand wheel.

But, some traditional Mohawks don’t want it shared with outsiders. Tarbell wants to respect those voices in the community as the project moves forward, but at the same time not get bogged down.

“Specific things like that may need to go into more discussion,” she said.

Susan Fuller of Fuller Communications, who has studied the Thanksgiving Address said she thinks it would be in its spirit to spread the knowledge to all who would seek it, regardless of cultural affiliation.

“These parts of the world belong to everyone, we don’t own them,” she said.

Tarbell thinks Akwesasne cultural tourism could include an honest and frank history of the people.

“It’s not pretty,” she said. “If people come to our community and understand what really happened, it helps to heal.”

She compared it to keeping Holocaust history alive, a double-edged sword of education and planting seeds to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

“It’s not pretty at all, but it needs to be out there,” she said.

Some of that history includes boarding schools. As late as the 20th century, Mohawk children were forcibly taken away from the reservation and their families to be assimilated into American culture. They were forbidden from practicing their traditional ways, physical and mental abuse was a fact of daily life. Some died.

Whatever shape the project takes, Mohawk art will be a central crux. During a brainstorming session, Tahy spoke of a trip he took to Boston where he stumbled upon an artists’ community and was able to fully immerse himself in the local scene. He thinks visitors should be able to get that type of experience locally.

“There are moments when we go out of our shell … think outside the circle,” he said.

Some traditionalists are wary of sharing their art with the outside world. But Fuller said she spoke with a member of that contingent who changed their position after visiting a Native American community in the southwest. In New Mexico especially, traditional crafts are a healthy share of the indigenous economy. The state is home to the largest Indian art market in the United States.

Tarbell believes the Akwesasne territory could use that type of infusion.

“Artists need broader support to sustain,” she said, and later added “the ones that don’t want to be part of it won’t be part of it.”

Some of that motivation comes from craftspeople forging a connection with their customer base and not wanting their art in the hands of someone who isn’t of good heart and mind.

“Artists don’t want to sell to someone who isn’t coming from a good place,” she said. “They’re there to educate – not only the community, but the outside community.”

There isn’t any funding in place yet, but Tarbell and Fuller are hopeful that an action plan will make them eligible for federal and state grants.

“Other communities and counties would love to partner with us, but we need a plan,” Tarbell said.

Before the strategic cultural tourism plan is set in stone, the Akwesasne community will be able to review a final draft and give input. Future public forums are in the works, but dates have yet to be finalized.