Akwesasne program helps students make their own regalia for graduation

Sonny B. White borrowed regalia to wear to his graduation in 2012; now he runs a program that teaches youth to make their own regalia to wear at the end of the school year.

"I believe that it's important that our youth have an outfit that they can be proud of and that they can wear on a big day like their graduation. It's a big accomplishment," he said. 

White is from Akwesasne, a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community that straddles the Quebec, Ontario and New York state borders, and the program is called Ratitsienhanónhnha, which means "They're tending the fire" in Kanien'kéha (Mohawk language).

Three free workshops were offered, for kastowa (traditional men's headdress) and women's hair pieces; moccasins, and ribbon shirts or yokes.

White said he'd often travel to visit elders so he could listen and learn from them, an opportunity he said many don't get.

Instead of travelling seven hours to another community, "Why not just bring the elder into their household through Zoom?" he said.

So he wrote grant proposals to hold classes about various aspects of Haudenosaunee culture.

At 16, Wahsontanoron Roundpoint is graduating from TR Leger's campus in Akwesasne two years ahead of her peers as a result of being homeschooled and skipping two grades.

She signed up for all three workshops.

"I think it's a great opportunity to allow people to make things their own and to learn about their own culture and why they wear it," Roundpoint said.

Wahsontanoron Roundpoint wears regalia she made in workshops to her graduation.
Wahsontanoron Roundpoint wears regalia she made in workshops for her high school graduation. (Submitted by Wahsontanoron Roundpoint)

Roundpoint plans on attending the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., after graduation and wants to be a ship operator.

"I grew up on Cornwall Island, and there's always ships around," she said.

"My father, he works at the St. Lawrence Seaway."

April Scott-Clarke, communications manager for the Upper Canada District School Board, said via email that TR Leger has always allowed students to wear regalia at graduation ceremonies.

"Student voice and expression is a priority for us," Scott-Clarke said.

Christine Stacey-Montour, a seamstress from Kahnawá:ke with 30 years experience, said she is busy every year sewing graduation outfits for people from Kahnawá:ke and other Haudenosaunee communities.

Montour said she's been booked solid for 2024 graduation orders since last June and has five new orders so far for next year.

She sews ribbon shirts, dresses and skirts, and baby items in addition to custom tailoring and repairs. A basic men's ribbon shirt takes her five to six hours to complete; that's without a design or applique pattern which adds hours depending on its intricacy.

Christine Stacey-Montour has over 30 years of experience.
Baby clothing made by Christine Stacey-Montour. (Submitted by Christine Stacey-Montour)

She said she loves the idea of a program like Ratitsienhanónhnha. One of the reasons, Montour said, is because there aren't as many people who are still sewing,

"The older ones who were doing work and taking on orders, one had passed away maybe eight years ago and then the other two, they're retired. They do not take any orders now."

White says making your own regalia adds to the meaning.

"You get to wear the outfit and you're like, 'Man, I remember like when this was just all getting cut out and I was really unsure and now I'm wearing it.' So it's a sense of pride."