Generations of Carrie Hill’s family have made baskets. But it wasn’t until she had her first child, 15 years ago, that she began to weave them herself. She was a stay-at-home mom, she says, “and after about four months with diapers and dishes, I was just like, ‘What about Carrie?’ ”
Seeking to scratch a creative itch, Hill started visiting her Auntie Laura, who made traditional Haudenosaunee baskets from black ash and sweetgrass. “She would show me how to lay things out and how to put it together and how to weave, and it just felt like I was supposed to do it,” she says. Within a few years, Hill started selling her baskets under the name Chill Baskets, then, in 2014, quit her job as a teacher’s aide to become a full-time artist. She hasn’t looked back. When we meet at her studio in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community in northern New York, she’s just back from showing her work at the prestigious Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market.
Hill’s small studio, which she calls “the building that baskets built,” is stuffed full of her work, her awards and long, thin strips of black ash splint hanging in coils. Her technique is traditional, but her designs lean contemporary. She shows me a woven face mask studded with skulls and “AWUSS” (“Go away” in Mohawk) spelled out in beads; a woven panel with “Land Back” cross-stitched on; jewelry; and lots of baskets, some big enough to be carried on the back, some so tiny they fit into the palm of your hand. She credits her aunt for encouraging her creativity. “Once my brain opened up, [I thought], ‘Oh, I don’t have to just do a basket. I can make earrings. … I can make cuffs. … I can make a million different things.’ I just like to be creative and be able to utilize the traditional techniques.” As we talk, she shows me how to lay out short strips of black ash, and I clumsily weave pieces of sweetgrass around them to make my own bookmark.
I booked my visit to Hill’s studio through Akwesasne Travel, the marketing organization for the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border, and New York, Ontario and Quebec. Despite the territory’s geographical complexity, residents (Akwesasronon) consider themselves to be one community. Last fall, Akwesasne Travel launched three tours to offer visitors a chance to learn about Akwesasne culture.
Tourism “has been a part of who we are for centuries,” says Penny Peters, Akwesasne’s tourism industry development manager. “We’re a very welcoming community.” The plan to formalize tourism in Akwesasne first emerged in 2008 out of a comprehensive community development plan that found that Akwesasronon were interested in developing tourism as a way to tell their stories and to support cultural revitalization by helping people make a living from their artistry.
The interest went both ways. Peters says the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (which governs Akwesasne’s New York portion, also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation) had been getting calls from visitors who wanted to learn about the community’s culture. “They used to just send them to the museum [at the Akwesasne Cultural Center], because that’s all we had.”
While drawing up tourism plans, Peters and her colleagues asked themselves what made Akwesasne unique within the area and unique among Mohawk and Haudenosaunee communities. From those questions emerged a focus on artisans.
Not only does Akwesasne have a strong, continuous tradition of basket-making, but it’s also known for crafting traditional wooden lacrosse sticks, a skill passed down through generations. Lacrosse has deep and sacred roots here. The game was founded by the Haudenosaunee, who have long treated it as more than a sport, considering it a gift from the creator and a “medicine game” used for healing. In the 1920s, Akwesasne became a commercial hub for making wooden lacrosse sticks and at one time manufactured 97 percent of the world’s lacrosse sticks, according to Akwesasne Travel.
Few lacrosse sticks are made from wood today, but Evan Cree keeps the tradition alive at his small but thriving business, Traditional Lacrosse. Cree’s great-grandfather owned the company that manufactured all those sticks a century ago, and he carries on the traditional methods as he crafts each stick from hickory and ash.
He’s busy when I find him in his workshop, which is stuffed with tools and half-finished sticks; the business is a one-man show, and only he needs to know where to find things. Cree is working hard to fill orders from colleges across the country. Traditional lacrosse sticks are largely decorative items these days, and graduation ceremonies make up a substantial portion of his orders. Where Hill’s experience felt like hanging out with a friend, Cree’s workspace makes me feel like a first-day-on-the-job apprentice as I tag behind him. For Cree, it’s just another day at work turning hickory logs into lacrosse sticks. He moves quickly between each station, standing to bend the top of the stick to form the head, then sitting on an old-fashioned draw horse (a combined vice and bench used for woodworking) to carve the stick with a knife passed down from his great-uncle. I leave still unsure of the exact process, but that’s kind of the point. Each tour is framed as a way to meet the artisans, rather than to learn how to imitate their craft.
When planning to scale up its tourism industry, Akwesasne Travel conducted extensive interviews to feel out what the community was and was not comfortable sharing with visitors. For example, “there has been negative feedback to teaching outsiders how to make our baskets,” Peters says. That’s why, in her tour, Hill only teaches guests how to make a simple bookmark. “It gives you the idea of how the weaving’s done, and you get to feel and touch the materials. But making an entire basket with the fancy curls and weaves and all of that? We wouldn’t share that beyond [the] community.”
Smoothing out misunderstandings and misconceptions is the focus of the third link in Akwesasne Travel’s slate of tours. At the Native North American Travelling College (NNATC), cultural educators take visitors into the history of Akwesasne, both before and after contact with European colonizers; teach guests how to pronounce Mohawk words; and provide a safe space to ask questions. NNATC lies on the Canadian side, and, because I wasn’t able to cross the border, I booked a Zoom tour of the cultural center instead. A legacy of the pandemic, a Zoom option is available for all Akwesasne tours. As my host, Lorna Thomas, holds up traditional musical instruments to the camera and shows me how to read the shell-beaded symbols on a wampum belt, she says she’s surprised by NNATC’s virtual reach: It has had guests join from as far away as Scotland.
It’s a far cry from NNATC’s initial incarnation, operating out of a VW van in the 1960s. The center recently underwent a major renovation, a sign of increasing interest in Akwesasne culture. Akwesasne Travel is working to keep the momentum going by soon adding three more cultural experiences to its offerings. The community is also developing an art park and art gallery at a former dam site on the St. Regis River.
Peters says there has been a surge in interest since the discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites in Canada. “I think there’s been sort of an awakening,” she says of non-Indigenous people on both sides of the border. Learning about Indigenous culture is one thing they feel they can do, individually, to learn more, Peters says, and even tourism can be part of that path toward understanding. “It can be learning about Carrie and her basket-making; about Evan and traditional lacrosse,” she says. Supporting Indigenous businesses, culture and art: It’s all a part of that path forward.
If You Go
What to eat
Three Feathers Internet Cafe
759 Route 37, Bombay, N.Y.
This casual and friendly local favorite is known for its traditional corn soup, as well as fresh salads and sandwiches. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 6 a.m. to noon. Entrees from $5.50.
What to do
This company offers three cultural tours in Akwesasne: an introduction to basket-weaving and traditional lacrosse-stick-making in New York, and visiting the Native North American Travelling College in Ontario. Passport required to do all three. Because of the complexity of traveling around Akwesasne — there’s overlapping residential and commercial space, and you can cross the international border without realizing — staff members typically accompany guests, and tours must be booked through the company. Tours from $39 per person, minimum of two people.
Akwesasne Cultural Center
321 Route 37, Akwesasne, N.Y.
This small museum, in the same building as the library, introduces visitors to the history of the Mohawk people, the origins of lacrosse and the artistry of Akwesasronon through exhibits that include intricate baskets, feathered hats and a 250-year-old wampum belt. Buy Akwesasronon-made jewelry and crafts at the Akwesasne Cultural Center’s gift shop, which has an excellent selection of items by local artisans. Museum admission $5 per person.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.