What I wish travellers knew before visiting my First Nations Reservation

October 12, 2022

For travellers visiting a First Nations Reservation, know that being able to visit is a privilege. Indigenous writer Gin Sexsmith writes about her reservation, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, and what tourists need to know about its history, culture, annual celebrations, and must-visit locations.

“Wait, so you’re from the rez?”

I watch him as he evaluates my features aloud:

“Pale skin,
but high cheek bones,
square jaw,
warrior eyes,” he says, completely unironically, before taking a sip of his Molson Canadian.

In actuality, I grew up Rez adjacent in the town of Deseronto, Ontario. Lands that technically belong to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte and should be accepted as part of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory but instead have remained tied up in The Culbertson Tract land claim disputes since 1995. Or rather, since the 1800s when over 800 acres of Mohawk land was illegally lost to the Loyalists.

“The land of cheap darts and gas,” he says with a whistle of breath. I weigh my response, unsure of whether or not to tell him that my family runs both a gas station and two smoke shops. On one hand, it will secure his belief that I am, indeed, Actually Indigenous. On the other, it will solidify these ideas that the Rez (for non-Canadians, that’s short for First Nations Reservation) is only a place to fuel up and buy those bags of smokes.

“So you, like, don’t have to pay tax? You have one of those cards?”

I think about pulling my Band Card from my purse. Certificate of Indian Status. Yet, I hate feeling as if I need to show it to people in order to be taken seriously. A piece of plastic that dictates whether or not I’m an imposter. I hate that it justifies the fact that Columbus thought he was in India and we’ve been considered Indians ever since. One white guy makes a mistake five hundred and thirty years ago and it’s somehow stuck.

I wondered if tourists expected loin cloths and tomahawks. I almost wished that if their opinions were so skewed, they’d just keep driving.

If you’ve ever driven along the 401 from Toronto to Ottawa, you’ve probably passed signs for Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. It rests smack-dab in the middle of the two. Maybe you’ve even stopped to gas up. Ten out of ten I would highly recommend you do, but I have to tell you, the Rez is oh so much more.

In Tyendinaga, locally known as Kenhté:ke, the street signs are written in Mohawk. Kanyen’keha. The territory itself is home to over two thousand band members and is the third largest First Nation Reservation in Ontario.

As the man keeps talking about wanting to bring me to Walmart with him the next time he buys a TV, I’m reminded of a recent day working at Smokin’ Pit Stop and being impatiently asked by visitors in a rush of breath both: “Where are the tipis?” and “Where are the Real Indians?”

I wondered if tourists expected loin cloths and tomahawks. I almost wished that if their opinions were so skewed, they’d just keep driving.

“The Haudenosaunee are the people of the longhouse. Tipis were never used by the Mohawks and instead were used by the Plains Peoples in the Prairies,” I said to a woman whose face had morphed into a dull glaze as she realized she wasn’t going to be able to get any authentic photos for her Facebook friends.

I cringed as she left, but ultimately landed on the fact that this widespread ignorance signifies a larger issue of Indigenous erasure in the hands of North America. Longstanding images of the Hollywood Indian have brought about little room for much else other than long jet black hair, buckskin leather, stoic voices, and single tears.

Unsplash / Noah Silliman

Not all Indigenous Reservations are open to tourism, yet fortunately Tyendinaga is rich with businesses, restaurants, gift shops, and annually puts on a Pow Wow in August and the Mohawk Fair in September where locals and tourists alike can fill up on fluffy fry bread and peruse locally made crafts and artwork as well as all of those other classic fair festivities. You know, like the derby.

Native Renaissance located at the corner of Highway 49 and York Road has been in business for over forty years and is an excellent spot to check out handmade carvings and purchase jewelry, clothing, crafts and moccasins. Lil Crow Cabin located directly on the Bay of Quinte offers a cozy, romantic staycation vibe fully equipped with a hot tub and picturesque views of swan dotted waters, gentle waves, and the lush trees of Prince Edward County across the way.

On the opposite side of Bayshore Road sits Tsi Tkerhetoton Park, the Pow Wow grounds, where each year on May 22 there is a re-enactment of the initial landing as well as a thanksgiving for these lands that became home. The celebration commemorates the initial landing which took place on the same day in 1784 when a little over one hundred Mohawks travelled from Lachine, Quebec to the shores of Tyendinaga.

The Kenhteke Seed Sanctuary & Learning Centre offers a sacred space to grow, preserve, protect, and cultivate Indigenous and heirloom seeds specific to the Rotinonhsyon:ni to ensure sustainable living for future generations. Tyendinaga is on the forefront in reestablishing traditional sustainability and revitalizing language.

Not all Indigenous Reservations are open to tourism, yet fortunately Tyendinaga is rich with businesses, restaurants, gift shops, and annually puts on a Pow Wow in August and the Mohawk Fair in September

Like most reservations in Canada, Tyendinaga is built on broken promises by the Crown. Two-thirds of the originally agreed upon lands were lost due to government provisions and remain swept up in land claim battles to this day. The original ancestral homelands of the Mohawk Nation is the Mohawk River Valley, currently recognized as New York State.

During the American Revolution, the Mohawks acted as allies to the British Crown under the guise that their ancestral homelands would be returned. But, upon the end of the war and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Crown gave our homelands to the American rebel forces.

It was this broken promise that brought my ancestors to the Bay of Quinte.

These lands were not new to the Mohawks: Tyendinaga is rich in history and was the birthplace of the Peacemaker who was responsible for uniting the initial Five Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the 12th Century, which have since become the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy made up of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora Nations. The most important takeaway for travellers visiting a reservation is to remember that being able to visit in the first place is a privilege. Respect goes a long way.

Do your research.

Understand that each Indigenous Nation has their own cultural practices and language.

Know that Indigenous issues run deep. Reconciliation is based upon non-Indigenous people showing compassion and educating themselves—starting with reading the 94 Calls to Action—and above all else, showing Indigenous People respect.

My top recommended read for non-Indigenous people who want to learn and get fired up is 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph.

Oh, and if you do fuel up in TMT, go to Speedway Gas and say that Gin sent you.

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