The Mohawk were located mainly along the middle Mohawk River Valley but also north into the Adirondack Mountains and south nearly to Oneonta. At the height of their power, the Iroquois controlled land from the Hudson to the Illinois rivers and from the Ottawa to the Tennessee rivers. Today, Mohawk live in southern Quebec and Ontario, Canada, and in the extreme north of New York. There were perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 members of the Iroquois League around 1500 and roughly 4,000 Mohawk in the mid-17th century. The Mohawk spoke a northern Iroquois dialect.
The Mohawk recognized Orenda as the supreme creator. Other animate and inanimate objects and natural forces were also considered to be of a spiritual nature. The Mohawk held important festivals to celebrate maple sap and strawberries, as well as corn planting, ripening (green corn ceremony), and harvest.
The eight-day new year's festival may have been most important of all. Held in the midwinter, it was a time to give thanks, to forget past wrongs, and to kindle new fires, with much attention paid to new and old dreams. A condolence ceremony had quasi religious components. Medicine groups such as the false face society, whose members wore carved wooden masks, and the medicine, dark dance, and death feast societies (the last two controlled by women) also conducted ceremonies, since most illness was thought to be of supernatural origin. In the early 19th century, many Iroquois embraced the teachings of Handsome Lake.
The Iroquois League comprised 50 hereditary chiefs, or sachems, from the constituent tribes. Each position was named for the original holder and had specific responsibilities. Sachems were men, except where a woman acted as regent, but they were appointed by women. The Mohawk sent nine sachems (three from each clan) to meetings of the Iroquois Great Council, which met in the fall and for emergencies. Their symbol at this gathering was the shield.
Debates within the great council were a matter of strict clan, division, and tribal protocols, in a complex system of checks and balances. Politically, individual league members often pursued their own best interests while maintaining an essential solidarity with the other members. The creators of the U.S. government used the Iroquois League as a model of democracy.
Locally, the village structure was governed by a headman and a council of elders (clan chiefs, elders, wise men). Matters before the local councils were handled according to a definite protocol based on the clan and division memberships of the chiefs. Village chiefs were chosen from groups as small as a single household. Women nominated and recalled clan chiefs. Tribal chiefs represented the village and the nation at the general council of the league. The entire system was hierarchical and intertwined, from the family up to the great council. Decisions at all levels were reached by consensus.
Mohawk society was composed of three matrilineal, animal-named clans (Wolf, Bear, and Turtle). The clans in turn were composed of matrilineal lineages. Each owned a set number of personal names, some of which were linked with particular activities and responsibilities.
Women enjoyed a high degree of prestige, being largely equated with the "three sisters" (corn, beans, and squash), and they were in charge of most village activities, including marriage. Great intravillage lacrosse games included heavy gambling. Personal health and luck were maintained by performing various individual rituals, including singing and dancing, learned in dreams. Shamans also used up to 200 or more plant medicines to cure illness.
Young men's mothers arranged marriages with a prospective bride's mother. Divorce was possible but not readily obtained because it was considered a discredit. The dead were buried in a sitting position, with food and tools for use on the way to the land of the dead. A ceremony was held after 10 days. The condolence ceremony mourned dead league chiefs and installed successors. A modified version also applied to common people.
In the 17th century, the Mohawk lived in three main villages (Caughnawaga, Kanagaro, and Tionnontoguen) of 30 or more longhouses, each village with 500 or more people, and other smaller villages as well. The people built their villages near water and often on a hill after about 1300. Some villages were palisaded. Other Iroquois villages had up to 150 longhouses and 1,000 or more people. Villages were moved about twice in a generation, when the firewood and soil were exhausted.
The Iroquois built elm-bark longhouses, 50 to 100 feet long, depending on how many people lived there, from about the 12th century on. The houses held generally two or three but as many as 20 families. There were smoke holes over each two-family fire. Beds were raised platforms; people slept on mats, their feet to the fire, covered by pelts. Upper platforms were used for food and gear storage. Roofs were shingled with elm bark. The people also built some single-family houses.
Women grew corn, beans, squash, and gourds. Corn was the staple and was used in soups, stews, breads, and puddings. It was stored in bark-lined cellars. Women also gathered a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, roots, berries, fruits, and mushrooms. Tobacco was grown for ceremonial and social smoking.
After the harvest, men and some women took to the woods for several months to hunt and dry meat. Men hunted large game and trapped smaller game, mostly for the fur. They also caught waterfowl and other birds, and they fished. The people grew peaches, pears, and apples in orchards from the 18th century on.
Iroquois used porcupine quills and wampum belts as a record of events. Wampum was also used as a gift connoting sincerity and, later, as trade money. These shell disks, strung or woven into belts, were probably a postcontact technological innovation. The Mohawk obtained birchbark products from the Huron. Elm-bark canoes were roughly 25 feet long. The people were also great runners and preferred to travel on land. Women used woven and decorated tumplines to support their burdens. They used snowshoes in the winter.
Women made most clothing from deerskins. Men wore shirts and short breechclouts and tunics in cooler weather; women wore skirts. Both wore leggings, moccasins, and corn husk slippers in the summer. Robes were made of lighter or heavier skins or pelts, depending on the season. These were often painted. Clothing was decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Both men and women tattooed their bodies extensively. Men often wore their hair in a roach, whereas women wore theirs in a single braid doubled up and fastened with a thong.
Boys began developing war skills at a young age. Prestige and leadership were often gained through war, which was in many ways the most important activity. The Mohawk were known as particularly fierce fighters. In traditional warfare, at least among the Mohawk, large groups met face to face and fired a few arrows after a period of jeering, then engaged in another period of hand-to-hand combat using clubs and spears.
All aspects of warfare, from the initiation to the conclusion, were highly ritualized. War could be decided as a matter of policy or undertaken as a vendetta. Women had a large, sometimes decisive, say in the question of whether or not to fight. During war season, generally the fall, Iroquois war parties ranged up to 1,000 or more. Male prisoners were often forced to run the gauntlet: Those who made it through were adopted, but those who did not might be tortured by widows. Women and children prisoners were regularly adopted. Some captives were eaten.
The Iroquois began cultivating crops shortly after the first phase of their culture in New York was established around 800. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, and Hiawatha, a Mohawk shaman living among the Onondaga, founded the Iroquois League or Confederacy some time between 1000 and 1150.
The Iroquois first met non-Natives in the 16th century. There were sporadic Jesuit missions in Mohawk country throughout the mid-17th century. During these and subsequent years, the people became heavily involved in the fur trade. Trading, fighting, and political intrigue characterized the period. Although they were good at playing the European powers against each other, the Iroquois increasingly became British allies in trade and in the colonial wars and were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French.
Shortly after 1667, a year in which peace was concluded with the French, a group of Mohawk and Oneida Indians migrated north to La Prairie, a Jesuit mission on the south side of the Saint Lawrence River. This group eventually settled south of Montreal at Sault Saint Louis, or Kahnnawake (Caughnawaga). Although they were heavily influenced by the French, most even adopting Catholicism, and tended to split their military allegiance between France and Britain, they remained part of the Iroquois League. Some of this group and other Iroquois eventually moved to Ohio, where they became known as the Seneca of Sandusky. They ultimately settled in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).
At about the same time, a group of Iroquois settled on the island of Montreal and became known as Iroquois of the Mountain. Like the people at Caughnawaga, they drew increasingly close to the French. The community moved in 1721 to the Lake of Two Mountains and was joined by other Native Americans at that time. This community later became the Oka reserve. Other Mohawk traveled to the far west as trappers and guides and merged with indigenous tribes there.
Early in the 18th century, the first big push of non-Native settlers drove into Mohawk country. The Mohawk at that time had two principal settlements and were relatively prosperous from their fur trade activities. The establishment of St. Regis in the mid-18th century by some Iroquois from Caughnawaga all but completed the migration to the Saint Lawrence area. Most of these people joined the French in the French and Indian War, and their allegiance was split during the American Revolution.
The British victory in 1763 meant that the Iroquois no longer controlled the balance of power in the region. Despite the long-standing British alliance, some Natives joined anti-British rebellions as a defensive gesture. The confederacy split its allegiance in the Revolutionary War, with most Mohawks, at the urging of Theyendanegea (Joseph Brant), siding with the British. This split resulted in the council fire's being extinguished for the first time in roughly 200 years.
The British-educated Mohawk Joseph Brant proved an able military leader in the American Revolutionary War. Despite his leadership and that of others, however, the Mohawk suffered depredations throughout the war, and by war's end their villages had been permanently destroyed. When the 1783 Treaty of Paris divided Indian land between Britain and the United States, British Canadian officials established the Six Nations Reserve for their loyal allies, to which most Mohawk repaired. Others went to a reserve at the Bay of Quinté, which later became the Tyendinaga (Deseronto) Reserve.
The Iroquois council officially split into two parts during that time. One branch was located at the Six Nations Reserve and the other at Buffalo Creek. Gradually, the reservations, as well as relations with the United States and Canada, assumed more significance than intraconfederacy matters. In the 1840s, when the Buffalo Creek Reservation was sold, the fire there was rekindled at Onondaga.
In Canada, traditional structures were further weakened by the allotment of reservation lands in the 1840s; the requirement under Canadian law, from 1869 on, of patrilineal descent; and the transition of league councils and other political structures to a municipal government. In 1924, the Canadian government terminated confederacy rule entirely, mandating an all-male elected system of government on the reserve.
The Native economy gradually shifted from primarily hunting to farming, dependence on annuities received for the sale of land, and some wage labor. The people faced increasing pressure from non-Natives to adopt Christianity and sell more land. The old religion declined during that time, although on some reservations the Handsome Lake religion grew in importance. During the 19th century, the Mohawk worked as rowers with shipping companies, at one point leading an expedition up the Nile in Egypt. They also began working in construction during that period, particularly on high steel scaffolding.
At Akwesasne, most people farmed, fished, and trapped during the 19th century. Almost all resident Natives were Catholic. Government was provided by three United States–appointed trustees and, in Canada, by a mandated elected council. With other members of the confederacy, Mohawks resisted the 1924 citizenship act, selective service, and all federal and state intrusions on their sovereignty.
The Mohawk, particularly those from Kahnawake, have earned a first-rate reputation as high-steel workers throughout the United States since the late 19th century. People from Kahnawake have pursued self-determination particularly strongly. In 1990, there was a major incident, sparked by the expansion of a golf course, that resulted in an armed standoff involving local non-natives and the communities of Oka, Kahnawake, and Kanesatake. Akwesasne Mohawk have continued to battle the U.S. and Canadian governments over a number of issues. In 1968, by blocking the Cornwall International Bridge, they won concessions making it easier for them to cross the international border. The same year, a Mohawk school boycott brought attention to the failure of Indian education. In 1974, they and others established a territory called Ganienkeh on a parcel of disputed land. In 1977, New York established the Ganienkeh Reservation in Altoona. The Akwesasne community has also been beset by fighting from within. Community leaders have had difficulty uniting around divisive issues such as gambling, state sales and cigarette taxes, pollution, sovereignty, and land claims.
As a result of generations having worked in high steel, Mohawk communities exist in some Northeastern cities. Most of these people remain spiritually tied to their traditions, however, and frequently return to the reservations to participate in ceremonies, including longhouse ceremonies, which have been active at least since the 1930s.
In general, traditional political and social (clan) structures remain intact. One major exception is caused by Canada's requirement that band membership be reckoned patrilineally. The political structure of the Iroquois League continues to be a source of controversy for many Iroquois (Haudenosaunee). Some recognize two seats—at Onondaga and Six Nations—whereas others consider the government at Six Nations a reflection of, or corollary to, the traditional seat at Onondaga. Important issues concerning the confederacy in the later 20th century include Indian burial sites, sovereignty, gambling casinos, and land claims.
The Six Nations Reserve is still marked by the existence of progressive and traditional factions, with the former generally supporting the elected band council and following the Christian faith and the latter supporting the confederacy and the longhouse religion. Traditional Iroquois celebrate at least 10 traditional or quasi-traditional events, including the midwinter, green corn, and strawberry ceremonies. Iroquois still observe condolence ceremonies as one way to hold the League together after roughly 500 years of existence. The code of Handsome Lake, as well as the longhouse religion, based on traditional thanksgiving ceremonies, is alive on the Six Nations Reserve and in other Iroquois communities.
Barry M. Pritzker
Hicks, John D. The Federal Union: A History of the United States to 1865. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1937; Moquin, Wayne. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973; Pritzker, Barry M. Native America Today: A Guide to Community Politics and Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.