Art Works Blog

A New Heritage Center to Showcase Awkwesasne Mohawk Culture

Based in northern New York, the Mohawk people of Akwesasne have a long and rich history—too long and too rich to be adequately showcased in a small museum located in the library basement, which is where many of the community’s cultural treasures are currently housed. “Very inadequate space for a museum,” noted Gail Mc Donald, who has worked in her Mohawk community for decades.

Now, plans are underway to develop a new Heritage Center, which would include a new museum, library, archive facility, and visitor’s center. “The new Heritage Center would provide a facility with proper climate control, storage, and preservation space, and displays that would really give the respect and platform for us to showcase to the world—and also ourselves—the rich history that we have and who we are today,” said Mc Donald, who is the project developer for the new center. She noted that the community cannot repatriate certain historical and cultural artifacts because it lacks the facilities to properly conserve them, as well as the space to exhibit them.

While Mc Donald noted that it would be cheaper to simply “build a box-shaped facility,” she and the cultural tourism team hope that the buildings themselves will become cultural treasures. With funding from a recently announced National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Akwesasne community will host workshops during which artists will collaborate and develop culturally appropriate designs and artwork for the public spaces within the complex. Mc Donald said that Akwesasne culture is rife with symbolism, from the traditional turtle, bear, and wolf clans, to the rivers that flow through the community, to the ceremonies and songs that honor different seasons and foods. All of these, as well as their language, could be incorporated by artists into a facility that celebrates what it means to be Akwesasne Mohawks, Mc Donald said.

“Our artists have such an amazing vision of everything that we believe as a people, and they can translate that into various art forms,” said Mc Donald, whether that be painting, pottery, basket making, jewelry, or beading. “The symbolism and the stories that can be told through the eyes of our artisans can be pretty remarkable.” Mc Donald said that all proposed designs and artwork for the complex will be vetted through the community to ensure that all cultural protocols are respected.

Such a facility is a reminder of the community effort that has been made to reverse the effects of residential schools—and industrial impact on the environment—through language classes, cultural teachings, and practice of traditional art forms. These initiatives have all strengthened the resolve to build the proposed Heritage Center, and properly celebrate the Akwesasne Mohawk’s cultural legacy. “We won't have to go outside of the community to find [our historic artifacts],” Mc Donald said. “I can look at them at home, and my grandchildren can see these things and learn from them and understand what they represent to our people.”

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