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Total population
Regions with significant populations
Flag of Canada Canada (Quebec, Ontario) 13,000
Flag of United States United States (New York) 15,000
English, Mohawk
Christianity, Longhouse
Related ethnic groups
other Iroquoian peoples

The Mohawk were one of the five core tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy founded between 1450 and 1600. The Mohawk leader, Hiawatha, and the prophet, Deganawida The Great Peacemaker, united to bring the original tribes together under a peaceful constitution called "The Great Binding Law." It is reported that this document may have informed the founding fathers of the United States when drafting the constitution for a new nation. The Mohawk were known as the "Keepers of the Eastern Door" who guarded the Iroquois Confederation against invasion from that direction. They generally shared the customs and culture of the other Iroquois tribes, although they maintained their distinctive identity including their traditional hairstyle used when they went to war.

The American Revolutionary War divided the Iroquois between Canada and the United States. The Mohawk, led by Joseph Brant moved to Canada following the victory of the Americans. Mohawk continue to live in both Canada and New York State, many of them working in the steel industry, losing their native language and culture and being assimilated into the city lifestyle. Others remain on the reserve/reservation and have established casinos, although there is disagreement within the Mohawk society between the traditional chiefs who oppose gambling and the elected chiefs who favor the casinos as a way of ensuring economic self-sufficiency.


The Mohawk (Kanienkeh, Kanienkehaka or Kanien’Kahake, meaning "People of the Flint") are an indigenous people of North America originally from the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York to southern Quebec and eastern Ontario. Their current settlements include areas around Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. ("Canada" itself is a Mohawk word.) Their traditional homeland stretches from south of the Mohawk River, east to the Green Mountains of Vermont, west to its border with the Oneida Nation, and north to the Saint Lawrence River. As original members of the Iroquois League, or Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk were known as the "Keepers of the Eastern Door" who guarded the Iroquois Confederation against invasion from that direction. (It was from the east that European settlers first appeared, sailing up the Hudson River to found Albany, New York, in the early 1600s.)

Origins of name

The name of the Mohawk people in the Mohawk language is Kanien'kehá:ka, alternately attributed various spellings by early French-settler ethnographers including one such spelling as Canyenkehaka. There are various theories as to why the Mohawk were called the "Mohawk" by Europeans. One theory holds that the name "Mohawk" was bestowed upon the tribe by German mercenaries and immigrants settled near Fort Orange in Mohawk Valley that were fighting with the British troops, who, mistaking by a personal pidgin in relation with others they had intertwined, derived the well known pronunciation for the Kanien'kehá:ka tribe as "Moackh." An English language corruption of pronunciation turned the original Mohawk Valley German-Dutch pidgin of the Kanien' kehá:ka name into the current pronunciation of "Mohawk." A widely-accepted theory is that the name is a combination of the Narraganset word for "man-eaters" (Mohowawog), the Unami term for "cannibal-monsters" (Mhuweyek), an Algonquin term for "ate living creatures" (Mohowaugs), and the Ojibwe term for "bears" (Mawkwas).

The Dutch referred to the Mohawk as Maquasen, or Maquas. To the French they were Agniers, Maquis, or simply Iroquois.

To the Mohawk themselves, they are Kanien'kehá:ka or "People of the Flint." The term "People of the Flint" is associated with their origins in the Mohawk Valley, where flint deposits were traditionally used in Mohawk bow arrows, and as flint (tools).


Did you know?
As original members of the Iroquois League, or Haudenosaunee, the Mohawk were known as the "Keepers of the Eastern Door" who guarded the Iroquois Confederation against invasion from that direction

Before European contact

History has remembered the name of the Mohawk leader, Hiawatha, for his work bringing peace to the Iroquois Nation and for a poem Song of Hiawatha written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow centuries after his death.

Iroquois Six-Nations map c.1720

Hiawatha was a follower of Deganawida (The Great Peacemaker), a prophet and spiritual leader who was credited as the founder of the Iroquois confederacy. If The Great Peacemaker was the man of ideas, Hiawatha was the politician who actually put the plan into practice. Hiawatha was a skilled and charismatic orator, and was instrumental in persuading the Iroquois peoples, the Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Mohawks, a group of Native North Americans who shared similar languages, to accept The Great Peacemaker's vision and band together to become the Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy. Later, in 1721, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois confederacy, and they became the Six Nations.

After European contact

A 1634 Dutch expedition from Fort Orange (present-day Albany, New York) to the Mohawk settlements to the west was led by a surgeon named Harmen van den Bogaert. At the time of the expedition there were only eight villages (from east to west): Onekahoncka, Canowarode, Schatsyerosy, Canagere, Schanidisse, Osquage, Cawaoge, and Tenotoge. All villages were on the south side of the river, between present-day Fonda and Fort Plain. The first (Onekahoncka) being situated on the south side of the Mohawk River where it meets the Cayadutta Creek, and the last being on the south side of the Mohawk River where it meets the Caroga Creek.

During the seventeenth century, the Mohawks were allied with the Dutch at Fort Orange, New Netherland. Their Dutch trade partners equipped the Mohawks to fight against other nations allied with the French, including the Ojibwes, Huron-Wendats, and Algonquins. After the fall of New Netherland to the English, the Mohawks became allies of the English Crown. From the 1690s, they underwent a period of Christianization, during which many were baptized with English first names.

The oldest known portrait of Kateri Tekakwitha, painted after her death by Father Chauchetière

One large group of Mohawks settled in the vicinity of Montreal. From this group descend the Mohawks of Kahnawake, Akwesasne and Kanesatake. One of the most famous Catholic Mohawks is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Tekakwitha (1656 – April 17, 1680) was the daughter of a Mohawk warrior and a Christian Algonquin woman. At the age of four, smallpox swept through Ossernenon, and Tekakwitha was left with unsightly scars and poor eyesight. The outbreak took the lives of her brother and both her parents. She was then adopted by her uncle, who was the chief of the Turtle-clan. As the adopted daughter of the chief, she was courted by many of the warriors looking for her hand in marriage. However, during this time she began taking interest in Christianity. Tekakwitha was converted and baptized in 1676 by Father Jacques de Lamberville, a Jesuit. At her baptism, she took the name "Kateri," a Mohawk pronunciation of "Catherine." Unable to understand her zeal, members of the tribe often chastised her, which she took as a testament to her faith.

She is called The Lily of the Mohawks, the "Mohawk Maiden," the "Pure and Tender Lily," and the "Fairest Flower among True Men."[1] Saint Kateri was declared venerable by the Catholic Church in 1943, beatified beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI at Saint Peter's Basilica on October 21, 2012.[2] Various miracles and supernatural events are attributed to her intercession.

On November 11, 1794, the (New York) Mohawk Nation (along with the other Haudenosaunee nations) signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States. The treaty established peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Six Nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), and affirmed Haudenosaunee land rights in New York State.

The "Four Mohawk Kings" or "Four Kings of the New World" were the three Mohawk and one Mahican Chiefs of the Iroquoian Confederacy. The three Mohawk were: Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow of the Bear Clan, called King of Maguas, with the Christian name Peter Brant, grandfather of Joseph Brant; Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row of the Wolf Clan, called King of Canojaharie, or John of Canojaharie ("Great Boiling Pot"); and Tee Yee Ho Ga Row, meaning "Double Life," of the Wolf Clan, called King Hendrick, with the Christian name Hendrick Peters. The one Mahican was Etow Oh Koam of the Turtle Clan, labeled in his portrait as Emperor of the Six Nations. It was these four First Nations leaders who visited Queen Anne in 1710 as part of a diplomatic visit organized by Pieter Schuyler. Five set out on the journey, but one died in mid-Atlantic. They were received in London as diplomats, being transported through the streets of the city in Royal carriages, and received by Queen Anne at the Court of St. James Palace. They also visited the Tower of London and Saint Paul's Cathedral. To commemorate this visit Jan Verelst was commissioned to paint the portraits of the Four Kings.

Four Mohawk Kings painted by Jan Verelst, 1710. From left to right: Etow Oh Koam, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row and Tee Yee Ho Ga Row. (National Archives of Canada - Artist: Jan Verelst C-092421, C-092419, C-092417, C-092415)

During the era of the French and Indian War, Anglo-Mohawk relations were maintained by men such as Sir William Johnson (for the British Crown), Conrad Weiser (on behalf of the colony of Pennsylvania), and King Hendrick (for the Mohawks).

Joseph Brant, painted in London by leading court painter George Romney in 1776

Because of unsettled conflicts with Anglo-American settlers infiltrating into the Mohawk Valley and outstanding treaty obligations to the Crown, the Mohawks generally fought against the United States during the American Revolutionary War, the Northwest Indian War, and the War of 1812. After the American victory in the Revolutionary War, one prominent Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, led a large group of Iroquois out of New York to a new homeland at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. In 1763, "Council fires were extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years." [3] On November 11, 1794, representatives of the Mohawks (along with the other Iroquois nations) signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States.

The Mohawk Nation, as part of the Iroquois Confederacy, were recognized for some time by the British government, and the Confederacy was a participant in the Congress of Vienna, having been allied with the British during the War of 1812 which was viewed by the British as part of the Napoleonic Wars. However, in 1842 their legal existence was overlooked in Lord Durham's report on the reform and organization of the Canadas.

Smoke Johnson (right) with John Tutela, and Young Warner, two other War of 1812 veterans.
Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) in Brantford, Ontario, ca. 1885-1895

Chief John Smoke Johnson (December 2 or 14, 1792 - August 26, 1886) or Sakayengwaraton (also known as Smoke Johnson), was a Mohawk leader who participated in the War of 1812. His granddaughter, Emily Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (March 10, 1861 - March 7, 1913), was a Canadian writer and performer. She is often remembered for her poems that celebrate her heritage. One such poem is the frequently anthologized “The Song my Paddle Sings.”


There were 50 chiefs (Sachems) of the Iroquois League. As members of the League, the Mohawk sent nine sachems to the great council each fall. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation, entitled "The Great Binding Law," "Gayanashagowa," opens with this line:

I am Dekanawidah and with the Five Nations Confederate Lords I plant the Tree of Great Peace. I plant it in your territory, Adodarhoh, and the Onondaga Nation, in the territory of you who are Firekeepers.[4]

Mohawk culture in many ways is common to that of all the Iroquois. However, as did the other tribes, they retain a distinct identity.


According to tradition, a supreme creator, Orenda, was recognized in the festivals held for harvest, maple sap, strawberries, and maize. An eight-day event in midwinter was held to forgive past wrongs. Other animate and inanimate objects were considered to have a spiritual value. Celebration of the maple sap and strawberries as well as corn planting were considered spiritual in nature. Also, in the winter, there was an important eight-day festival to give thanks and to forget past wrongs.

The Summer Initiation Festival is held at the beginning of May each year. Mohawks gather to celebrate the coming of summer and the life it brings. This has been a very respected and honored festival of the Mohawk people for several thousands of years. For five days, the Mohawks perform various rituals, such as planting new seeds that will flourish into plants over the summer, that honor and celebrate Mother Earth for the life she is giving to the Earth. The Mohawks believe that winter is a time of death in which Mother Earth goes into a long slumber, in which many plants die, but when spring arrives and nature begins to flourish, she has woken up and given life once again.


The Mohawk recognized a dual division, each composed of three matrilineal, animal-named clans (Wolf, Bear, and Turtle). Women were highly regarded and were equated with the "three sisters" corn, beans, and squash. Intra-village activities included gambling and lacrosse games. Food was shared so that all were equal. Shamans used plant medicines for healing.

Suicide was committed on occasion due to dishonor or abandonment. Murder was avenged or paid for with gifts. The dead were buried in sitting position with food and tools for use in the spirit world. A ceremony was held after ten days.[5]

Traditional Mohawk hair

The Mohawks, like many indigenous tribes in the Great Lakes region, sometimes wore a hair style in which all their hair would be cut off except for a narrow strip down the middle of the scalp from the forehead to the nape, that was approximately three finger widths across. This style was only used by warriors going off to war. The Mohawks saw their hair as a connection to the creator, and therefore grew it long. But when they went to war, they cut all or some of it off, leaving that narrow strip. The women wore their hair long often with traditional bear grease or tied back into a single braid. Today the hairstyle of the Mohawk is still called a "Mohawk" (or, in Britain, a "Mohican," because this enemy-tribe used it as a disguise during war).

Traditional Mohawk dress

Traditional dress consisted of women going topless with a skirt of deerskin or a full woodland deerskin dress, long fashioned hair or a braid, and only bear grease on their head, several ear piercings adorned by shell earrings, shell necklaces, and puckered-seam moccasins.

The men wore a breech cloth of deerskin in summer, deerskin leggings and a full piece deerskin shirt in winter, several shell strand earrings, shell necklaces, long fashioned hair or a three finger width forehead to nape hair row which stood approximately three inches from the head, and puckered-seamed moccasins.

During summer children wore nothing and went naked even until about age 14.

Later dress after European contact combined some cloth pieces such as the male's ribbon shirt in addition to the place of the deerskin clothing.


Statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hiawatha (also known as Ayenwatha or Ha-yo-went'-ha; Onondaga Hayę́hwàtha)[6] who lived (depending on the version of the story) in the 1100s, 1400s, or 1500s, was variously a leader of the Onondaga and Mohawk nations of Native Americans.

Hiawatha is also the name of the legendary hero of the Ojibwa as described in Longfellow's famous epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Longfellow said that he based his poem on Schoolcraft's Algic Researches and History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Schoolcraft, in turn, seems to have based his "Hiawatha" primarily on the Algonquian trickster-figure Nanabozho. There is little or no resemblance between Longfellow's hero and the life-stories of Hiawatha and The Great Peacemaker.

In his notes on the poem, Longfellow cites Schoolcraft as a source for a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing-grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. Longfellow's notes make no reference to the Iroquois or the Iroquois League or to any historical personage.

According to ethnologist Horatio Hale (1817-1896), there was a longstanding confusion between the Iroquois leader Hiawatha and the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon due to "an accidental similarity in the Onondaga dialect between [their names]." The deity, he says, was variously known as Aronhiawagon, Tearonhiaonagon, Taonhiawagi, or Tahiawagi; the historical Iroquois leader, as Hiawatha, Tayonwatha or Thannawege. Schoolcraft "made confusion worse … by transferring the hero to a distant region and identifying him with Manabozho, a fantastic divinity of the Ojibways. [Schoolcraft's book] has not in it a single fact or fiction relating either to Hiawatha himself or to the Iroquois deity Aronhiawagon."

Contemporary Mohawk

Members of the Mohawk tribe now live in settlements spread throughout New York State and southeastern Canada. Among these are Ganienkeh and Kanatsiohareke in northeast New York, Akwesasne (St. Regis) along the Ontario-New York State border, Kanesatake (Oka) and Kahnawake in southern Quebec, and Tyendinaga and Wahta (Gibson) in southern Ontario. Mohawks also form the majority on the mixed Iroquois reserve, Six Nations of the Grand River, in Ontario. There are also Mohawk Orange Lodges in Canada.

Many Mohawk communities have two sets of chiefs that exist in parallel and are in some sense rivals. One group are the hereditary chiefs nominated by clan matriarchs in the traditional fashion; the other are elected chiefs with whom the Canadian and US governments usually deal exclusively. Since the 1980s, Mohawk politics have been driven by factional disputes over gambling. Both the elected chiefs and the controversial Warrior Society have encouraged gaming as a means of ensuring tribal self-sufficiency on the various reservations, while traditional chiefs have opposed gaming on moral grounds and out of fear of corruption and organized crime. Such disputes have also been associated with religious divisions: the traditional chiefs are often associated with the Longhouse tradition, practicing consensus-democratic values, while Warrior Society has attacked that religion in favor of their rebellious nature. Meanwhile, the elected chiefs have tended to be associated (though in a much looser and general way) with democratic values. The Government of Canada when ruling the Indians imposed English schooling and separated families to place children in English boarding schools. Like other tribes, Mohawks have mostly lost their native language and many have left the reserve to meld with the English Canadian culture.

Native Indians from the Seton Lake Indian Band blockade the BC Rail line in support of Oka, while an RCMP officer looks on.

The "Oka Crisis" was a land dispute between the Mohawk nation and the town of Oka, Quebec which began on July 11, 1990, and lasted until September 26, 1990. It resulted in three deaths, and would be the first of a number of well-publicized violent conflicts between Indigenous people and the Canadian government in the late twentieth century.

The crisis developed from a dispute between the town of Oka and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake. The Mohawk nation had been pursuing a land claim which included a burial ground and a sacred grove of pine trees near Kanesatake. This brought them into conflict with the town of Oka, which was developing plans to expand a golf course onto the land. In 1961, a nine-hole golf course, le Club de golf d'Oka, started to be built. The Mohawk launched a legal protest against construction. By the time the case was heard, much of the land had already been cleared and construction had begun on a parking lot and golf greens adjacent to the Mohawk cemetery. Their claim was finally rejected for failing to meet key criteria.[7]

On October 15, 1993, New York State Governor Mario Cuomo entered into the "Tribal-State Compact Between the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the State of New York." The compact purported to allow the Tribe to conduct gambling, including games such as baccarat, blackjack, craps, and roulette, on the Akwesasne Reservation in Franklin County under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). This decision met with controversy but was finally ratified. The tribe has continued to seek approval to own and operate additional casinos in New York State.


  1. Margaret and Stephen Bunson, "Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks" Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions brochure Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  2. Vicki Scheenstra, Pope Benedict canonizes 7 new saints, including Bl. Kateri, Native American Tacoma Catholicism Examiner (October 22, 2012). Retrieved October 23, 2012.
  3. Barry Pritzker, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. (Oxford Press, 2000, ISBN 019513897X), 436.
  4. Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law, Gayanashagowa.
  5. Pritzker, 2000, 438.
  6. William Bright, Native American Place Names of the United States. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, ISBN 080613576X), 166.
  7. The Summer of 1990 Retrieved October 2, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bright, William. Native American Place Names of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. ISBN 080613576X
  • Bunson, Margaret. Kateri Tekakwitha, Mystic of the Wilderness. Our Sunday Visitor, 1998. ISBN 0879735058
  • Cooper, James. The Last of the Mohicans. Bantam Classics, 1982. ISBN 0553213296. (historical fiction)
  • Greer, Allan. Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits. Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0195309348
  • Pritzker, Barry. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2000. ISBN 019513897X
  • Snow, Dean R. The Iroquois. New York, NY: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. ISBN 978-1557869388
  • Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0816062744

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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