The History and Culture of the Mohawk Tribe

In the history of North America, there is much to say about the individual tribes and nations of Indigenous people whose inhabitance of the land long-outlasts that of European settlers.

 One such longstanding nation is the Mohawks, formerly a member of the Iroquois Confederacy and a massive player in what is now the Northeastern United States and the Eastern part of Canada.

Here’s what you need to know about the Mohawk tribe historically and in modern times.

Geographical and Political History of the Mohawk Tribe

The Mohawk tribe, also called the “People of the Flint,” is one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. They were considered the “keepers of the eastern door” in the Confederacy. 

According to tradition, the Mohawk tribe gave rise to Tekanawita, the Peacemaker, who was responsible for bringing the Iroquois Confederacy into being in the first place and establishing the Great Rule of Peace that allowed the nations to work together.

Their territory extended through New York, Vermont, and into southern Canada, with the central hub of the tribe’s government in the Mohawk Valley in New York. This being said, their major influence extended well beyond their borders and into surrounding territories for centuries before the arrival of European settlers.

Mohawk society was organized in largely similar ways to other Iroquois tribes, with individual village chiefs who met to make larger decisions for the tribe. It split into three clans – Turtle, Wolf, and Bear – and three members in the Confederacy represented each clan. 

The Mohawks had a longstanding war with the nearby Mohicans and other Algonquin tribes – which had been going on for centuries due to language and cultural differences and disputes over resources and territory – that only intensified when the Dutch began settling in the area in the 1600s.

After the arrival of European settlers and the introduction of smallpox and other diseases to the valley began to stress the tribe to breaking, many Mohawks moved further north into Canada, and many more were lost to war with settlers, starvation, and disease. 

Though most Mohawk tribes sided with the British during the French and Indian War, some, who had earlier converted to Catholicism (either voluntarily or by force) sided with the French, causing some infighting that weakened the structure of the Iroquois Nations further. 

Colonial powers took much of the Mohawk tribal land until recent reclamation efforts brought it back under native control.

The Mohawk people worked intensely to maintain their place and culture in their lands even when facing colonization by the United States and Canada.

Although they were significantly hindered by unfair government policies and hostility from both countries, they maintained their membership in the Confederacy and fought for native rights through the 1800s and 1900s. 

Many Mohawks were forced into the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ontario, following the American Revolution due to their generally pro-British stance. However, many moved back into the United States in later centuries. 

Mohawks are recognized for their contributions to industries such as steel construction; specifically, many Mohawk builders were involved in creating important projects such as the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge in New York City.

Lifestyle and Culture of the Mohawk Tribe

Mohawk towns comprised longhouses organized around communal areas used for education, entertainment, religious ceremonies, and day-to-day maintenance and chores. 

Their staple crop was maize, which was often farmed by the women of the tribe, who also did much of the craftwork while the men hunted, fished, and defended the town. 

Fur trading was also a major industry for the Mohawks, whose major conflict with the Mohicans was for territory and hunting grounds.

Not much is known in modern times about the original belief system of the Mohawk people due to European influences. 

What is known is that the spiritual system was largely based on an ongoing conflict between good and evil that governed the world’s way. 

It was (and is, in some aspects) believed that dreams could deliver messages and could be interpreted to give direction in the waking world, which meant that many Mohawk religious leaders spent time interpreting the dreams of their community to help them reach a spiritual balance or complete the quests assigned to them by the dream givers (who were traditionally divine spirits).

As with many other Northeastern native groups, Wampum was a major part of Mohawk cultural items. Specifically, the Two Row Wampum Belt, consisting of two rows of purple Wampum beads separated by three rows of white beads, was a major symbol of respect and peace between the nations, as well as the River of Life through which each nation navigated.

Interestingly, the game of Lacrosse began as a Mohawk game that was both highly ritualistic and used as a preparation tool for war by Mohawk men. As a result, the games could be massive, with some claiming 100 or more players on the field at one time, with matches lasting for days. It’s still a highly-favored sport in Mohawk society, though its symbolic roots are less pronounced than they once were.

A Note on The Mohawk Hairstyle

Many people understandably assume that the modern hairstyle of the mohawk – a look where the hair on either side of the head is shaved down while a central stripe is allowed to grow longer – is styled after a traditional cut worn by Mohawk men in battle. 

While this is a reasonable conclusion to draw based on the naming and some real native styles, it’s actually a product of Hollywood confusion and poor media representation.

The style we call a mohawk now is actually an adaptation of one traditionally worn by Pawnee men in what is now Nebraska. Actual Mohawk men would have worn their hair in a scalp lock, which is a single tuft of hair at the crown of the head with the rest of the head plucked (not shaved), which may have been braided.

The modern mohawk appeared for the first time in a 1939 film called “Drums Along the Mohawk,” where white actors inaccurately portrayed Mohawk warriors. The look now works generally as a fashion item or during some particularly insensitive portrayals of native people for historical films and reenactments.

So, is wearing your hair in a mohawk or “fauxhawk” (where your hair is styled higher in the center but not cut) cultural appropriation? The answer is complicated. 

While most native people don’t consider the style to be taken from them directly, the attitude behind the fashion makes a significant amount of difference. For example, it would be considered appropriation to style your hair into a fauxhawk for a costume.

The Modern Mohawk Tribes

The modern Mohawk tribes – with membership estimates of around 47,000 – actively support Indigenous rights in North America. 

As with many other modern Indigenous nations, they campaign for more rights for Natives to have access to their ancestral land, offer educational services both to those with Native heritage and those from other cultures who are willing to learn, and lean heavily on their own community for cultural preservation.

The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte specifically are incredibly active in Ontario, Canada, and are currently pursuing a class action lawsuit against the Canadian government regarding the contamination of drinking water on tribal land, which has been a major issue in reservations across the continent. You can support their cause here.

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York is also an active community that puts a focus on education and tribal development, with resources available online for members of their community to gain access to community services such as medical assistance and recreational programs, economic resources, including job boards and small business support, and other social services.

In terms of education, not only do they offer educational development services for those in the community through things like child care and college planning, but they also offer educational resources for those outside of the Mohawk community on things like pronunciation and tribal history. You can learn more here.

The Mohawk Tribee

Mohawk culture has changed dramatically over time, as any culture will over the course of centuries, but it maintains a central focus on community and people-focused action, which is as prevalent in modern Mohawk nations as it was in the pre-colonial era of North America.

Though the best place to learn about native culture is always going to be directly from native sources, it’s good to have a primary understanding of different tribes’ cultures and influence in our world, especially as we interact with them in the modern world. 

Indigenous people are not only part of our history lessons; they are diverse modern communities that deserve to be respected and understood in their own right.

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