In 2016, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe received an Administration for Native Americans’ Sustainable Employment and Economic Development Strategies (SEEDS) grant for its Creating Akwesasne Tourism Businesses and Jobs project. The project is based on decades of community planning, research, and discussions that focused on culture, language, economic development, and tourism. The tribe, along with partners in the Akwesasne Tourism Working Group (ATWG), reviewed the opportunities and barriers in the community and decided that cultural tourism was an area that could be developed to create jobs and businesses that would benefit community members.
Akwesasne has a unique geography, with the United States and Canada border running right through the Community. The territory spreads across northern New York State, Ontario, and Quebec. The cultural tourism initiative is unique in that it aims to create “one Akwesasne” with its ATWG partners who represent various internal government entities and organizations in the Community. “Experience Akwesasne” is the promotional brand at this time.
Cultural tourism not only creates and grows new businesses and jobs, it can also help to strengthen and preserve local traditions, customs, language, and culture. Through sharing of their culture, traditional artisans and tradesmen would be able to create a sustainable living doing something they are passionate about. The location is ideal, with major cities located within an hour’s drive. Akwesasne’s territory includes many rivers and islands falling under tribal jurisdiction. The waterways are an important part of Akwesasne’s history and culture and were greatly affected by pollution and manmade obstructions. The project would help to assess current resources, like the waterways, and existing and planned cultural tourism ventures to form a strategy for expanding the cultural tourism industry.
The project’s goals are to:
- Develop a sustainable cultural tourism industry through well-developed planning
- Assist new and existing businesses to develop cultural tourism
- Develop the infrastructure necessary to support tourism developments
The three project staff members all have different focuses:
- Developing the tourism industry to include destination marketing, interpretive planning, historical research, a human resource strategy and organizational development.
- Developing and managing a business incubator to support cultural tourism endeavors
- Developing an Akwesasne heritage complex and Art Park
All aspects of the project currently being developed are drafted with sustainability in mind. The ANA grant has a major focus on obtaining expertise and key consultants to assist in setting plans for years beyond the funding.
In its first eight months, the project has focused largely on continuing community engagement, raising awareness, and sharing the benefits of cultural tourism. Involving the community as stakeholders in the initiative is key, and encouraging members to ask what aspects of their culture are of importance and which aspects would they want to share with others. As part of the community engagement process and to create excitement about cultural tourism, the “Onkwathereko:wa - Our Big Basket” project was coordinated at Akwesasne’s 17th Annual Pow Wow held in September where the Tourism Team had an information and display booth. Experienced Mohawk basket makers were invited to add their signature weave to create a large fancy basket. The display was a very popular demonstration for community members and the over 3,000 visitors attending the 2-day event. The completed basket will eventually be displayed at the future Heritage Complex.
When asked what advice the tribe would give to others planning or implementing a tourism industry project, they said to begin by creating a solid, sustainable plan involving key community players and continued community engagement. Know your goals, what is realistic and achievable, and what story do you want to share with visitors about your culture and history?