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Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Economic Development in Akwesasne CIRD Workshop Follow Up Q & A

Akwesasne workshop scene
Workshop participants and resource team members discuss during one of the workshop days.

The Akwesasne Tourism Working Group hosted Citizens' Institute on Rural Design™ capacity building workshop on November 17-19, 2016. The workshop’s goal was to identify essential elements of Mohawk culture and language and apply Mohawk culture to inform new design standards for buildings, roadways, signage and landscapes within the Akwesasne Mohawk territory located in New York state, Ontario, and Quebec, Canada. The new design standards were part of Akwesasne’s federally funded tourism and economic development initiative. Three resource team professionals in transportation, design, and Native American branding gathered with tribal leaders and community members to identify key destinations, and help guide the tourism and economic development plan. The resource team also helped steer the community on how to best work with U.S state and federal partners on public realm improvements.

The resource team included:   

  • Jody Clark, Deer Clan, Seneca Nation Allegany Territory, Director, Seneca Nation of Indians Department of Transportation;
  • Jamie SiJohn, Tribal Strategist, Account Manager at BHW1 Advertising;
  • Robert Tarbell, Senior Designer, Jacobs Engineering Group.

The workshop also included special guests from the Isle de Jean Charles CIRD workshop:

  • Chief Albert Naquin, Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha- Choctaw Indians;
  • Alessandra Jerolleman, PhD, MPA, CFM, VP Community Resilience and Hazard Mitigation- Water Works;
  • Wenceslau Billiot, Deputy Chief, Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians.

The workshop has led to several exciting projects and new funding opportunities. The CIRD workshop process helped the community secure $2 million dollars of federal funding through the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Native Americans (ANA) Sustainable Employment and Economic Development Strategies Program (SEEDS). With ANA funding, the community was able to create three new positions who will be assisting with the Akwesasne Strategic Action Plan. Additionally, Akwesasne has also initiated its plans to enhance public space amenities. The First Nation demolished the Hogansburg-Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department’s station in Hogansburg, NY to make way for a new green space complete with picnic tables and benches. The demolition is part of a multi-year plan to transform Akwesasne into a cultural destination for people interested in learning more about Mohawk’s rich history and heritage.

We interviewed the CIRD workshop coordinators to learn more about how the CIRD process impacted the community and about the new planning developments that have transpired since the workshop’s conclusion.

We spoke to:

  • Sue Ellen Herne, Museum Program Coordinator for the Akwesasne Cultural Center;
  • Lindsay M. Tarbell, Chair of Akwesasne Tourism Working Group and Economic Development Planner;
  • Bea Johnson, Partnership Development Officer for Akwesasne Area Management Board.

1.  What have you learned from the CIRD process, and how will these lessons inform your work with the tourism plan?*

We have been working a lot on improving our community engagement strategy and CIRD has reinforced our work in a positive way. We had more people come out to the workshop who didn’t know what we were working on, and a wider range of people were engaged--beyond the scope of what groups we were able to engage before.

The CIRD process helped in understanding how to broach some of the harder topics and provide an avenue to talk about them. The “Beautify Akwesasne” project started parallel to planning for CIRD; the project took applications from community members who had supplies for sprucing up their property – and the program provided them with free labor. The Beautify team hired several community members who learned job skills and helped to clear brush, paint, and do small repairs to properties throughout the community. The workshop provided added perspective to ongoing projects, like Beautify Akwesasne, and brought attention to community assets that were previously overlooked. More importantly, the process provided much needed feedback related to what the community wanted to see as far as murals, art, and culture. This work helped with our Beautify effort and our cultural tourism initiative. 

Sketches and notes from a workshop session identifying objects, themes and imagery which reflect the cultural identity of the community. 

The traditional and locally sourced food we served at the CIRD workshop was also a key element that people enjoyed and it sparked new ideas. Since the conclusion of the workshop, there have been several other events and activities in the community that have been tying history and culture to food.

2. What projects are underway that were informed by the CIRD workshop?

There are currently several initiatives including: The Kanien’kéha Owenna’shón:ah Signage Project, an Art Park, Heritage Markers program, Cultural Ambassador program, and Customer Service programs.

The Cultural Ambassador program blossomed from the CIRD Workshop and is in development. The program is related to the cultural tourism initiative and will train several community members to lead tours and cultivate new tourism-based-businesses.

The program will help Cultural Ambassadors learn tribal history, culture, and relevant job skills. Some will be given job placements as paid interns.

The three new ANA funded positions who will be assisting with the Akwesasne Strategic Action Plan are: 

1.    Tourism Incubator Manager:  

The Tourism Incubator Manager will initially supervise the planning and establishment of the Tourism Business Incubator, once operational, the manager will build and assist in the success of new and existing small businesses focusing on the tourism sector.

2.     Akwesasne Heritage Complex Developer

This position will provide oversight to the community engagement, planning, proposal/grants writing processes. This position will also work on the re-development of the power dam site and overall capital and infrastructure project developments for the Heritage Complex and Art Park.

3.    Tourism Industry Development Manager

This manager will be responsible for: designing, developing and implementing a Destination Management and Marketing Organization (DMMO) Business Plan. They will also work on interpretive planning and cultural guidelines, tour development, marketing and branding; community infrastructure improvements (signage, traffic flow, public spaces).  

The Akwesasne team also mentioned a series of projects and accomplishments:

  • Following the workshop, the Akwesane team secured $49,000 in Canadian government funding to help the Mohawk Council Akwesasne Community Support Program to train community members in advanced customer service skills. These hospitality and customer service skills are meant to benefit visitors coming into the community, and thereby, bolster the cultural tourism initiative.
  • The Kanien’kéha Owenna’shón:ah Signage Project is underway, with a project coordinator reaching out to artists and sign fabricators, as well as to businesses and organizations who would like to have signage placed at their location. The project is aimed at getting community members to use the Mohawk language (Kanien’kéha) more often in public spaces.
  • The Art Park project is under the leadership of one of the new hires through the ANA SEEDS grant. The new Akwesasne Heritage Complex Developer is tasked with developing plans for both the Art Park and the Heritage Complex. The fire station on the proposed Art Park property has been demolished and returned to green space. The other building on the property will be used for arts-related activities.
  • The Heritage Markers and Trails project is also underway. We have hired a designer and planner for the markers. We have already opened a new trail in the Tsi Snaihne District of Akwesasne. Additionally, there are funds in place for trails to be made in at least one more district soon. That project is through the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s (MCA) economic development department – another of our Akwesasne Tourism Working Group (ATWG) members.
  • Lastly, road improvements are ongoing throughout the community. We are working closely with the New York State Department of Transportation(NYSDOT) to accomplish our goals. The NYSDOT has held design workshops and has cited the CIRD outcomes as an excellent starting point for discussing a more context sensitive approach to transportation and infrastructure projects.  

*The interview was edited to for length and clarity.


Overall, the Akwesasne CIRD workshop was an important event, which provided a forum for the community to discuss its future and receive guidance from a resource team of professionals. The resource team helped Akwesasne think about how they may capitalize on their community assets, dedicate funding to cultural tourism training, and develop guidelines that integrate Akwesasne Mohawk culture into their signage. The workshop also broadened the scope of community engagement in Akwesasne and opened up conversation with the community members typically absent from planning the process. Lastly, the workshop helped the community articulate their values and needs more effectively to state agencies like the NYSDOT. Now new transportation initiatives will be make a concerted effort be more context sensitive and culturally relevant to Akwesasne.