Anyone who last visited Chiefswood Park on Six Nations before the pandemic would hardly recognize the place today.
The Grand River is as picturesque as ever and sunlight still peeks through lush Carolinian forest.
But the park grounds are now dotted with 16 luxury cabins and eight glamping units with rooftop solar panels, to join the eight existing serviced campsites and unserviced camping areas.
Visitors to the park just north of Ohsweken — the main town on Six Nations territory — along Highway 54 may also notice a new splash pad, camp store and tourism centre, along with a pavilion under construction that will host corporate retreats and cultural programs throughout the year.
These additions are aimed at making Chiefswood the main tourist destination on the reserve — to be the place, as the park’s motto reads, “where Six Nations welcomes the world.”
“Six Nations has a deep, rich history and culture, and a very important story to share,” said Matt Jamieson, president and CEO of the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, which oversees Chiefswood and Six Nations Tourism.
“As we move forward in the pursuit of reconciliation, we have pride and determination to do things on our terms,” he said.
Jamieson was at Gathering Place by the Grand — a conference centre down the road from Chiefswood — for a recent funding announcement for Indigenous-led tourism projects from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).
The financial support for Chiefswood announced by Hamilton MP Filomena Tassi, the minister who oversees FedDev Ontario, comes in the form of federal grants totalling more than $500,000.
Some of that money has already been spent on the glamping units and splash pad, with $200,000 used to renovate the park’s washroom and laundry facilities, and build the new pavilion.
The park also received $62,000 to promote virtual and augmented reality programs for visitors to the park and nearby Chiefswood National Historic Site, the birthplace and childhood home of Six Nations poet E. Pauline Johnson.
“It’s a virtual experience designed to help tell that authentic story, so that our visitors can depart with a better understanding of our history (and) who we are,” Jamieson said.
The development corporation started taking steps to transform Chiefswood in 2018, turning a tent and trailer park into a full-service destination with amenities to attract visitors looking to camp in comfort.
Most of the luxury cabins — two of which are accessible — were unveiled in 2020, just in time for COVID-19 to put tourism on pause, while the glamping units — solar-powered miniatures of the larger cabins that allow campers to rough it in style — are new this year.
With the recent closure of two small inns located in downtown Ohsweken, Chiefswood is now the only place on Six Nations where tourists can spend the night and “immerse themselves in all the community has to offer,” Jamieson said, noting the park creates spinoff economic benefits through visitors stopping by the Woodland Cultural Centre, Ohsweken Speedway and Six Nations Bingo.
Having the tourism office at Chiefswood is “a great starting point” for park visitors, said tourism manager Jaquie Jamieson, since staff can recommend where to purchase locally made handicrafts and sample Indigenous cuisine.
“For some people, it’s their first interaction with Indigenous people, especially in Canada,” she said.
“So it’s a great way to start learning about Indigenous people and that we’re all different — different languages, different cultures, different backgrounds, different ceremonies.”
Park manager Spring Sault, who oversees the 20-acre property, hopes all visitors leave Chiefswood having dispelled a few stereotypes and gained an appreciation for the “passion and enthusiasm and authenticity” found throughout Six Nations.
“Seeing that we’re approachable, friendly, helpful, and we want to welcome you and share our stories,” she said.
“I love (Chiefswood). It’s 10 minutes from where I live, and I would come here even if I wasn’t working here.”
Many visitors from urban areas come to Six Nations looking for experiential tourism and Chiefswood is happy to oblige, with nature trails, archery, movie nights, a spring Indigenous market and a smoke dance competition.
“And then we have my favourite, which is canoeing and kayaking,” Jaquie Jamieson said.
Some of her best workdays are spent on the water, leading kayak tours of the Grand River while telling paddlers about Haudenosaunee history and culture.
Numbers were down this summer — “probably just because of COVID,” Jamieson said — but some weekends were fully booked months in advance.
“It does get really busy,” she said. “Last year outdoor activities were really popular because of COVID, and this year we saw the same thing.”
Matt Jamieson expects attendance to increase.
“We do have lots of interest from people around the world who want to come and listen and learn about the history of Canada’s Indigenous people,” he said, adding the park has welcomed guests from Asia and Europe.
He hopes visiting Six Nations “piques their curiosity” to ask questions and learn more.
“I think that’s ultimately what I’d like to see — a more informed country around the Six Nations perspective,” he said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator