Mohawk (Mohawk: Kanien’kehá:ka, “People of the Flint”) are Aboriginal peoples in North America. They are the easternmost member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also referred to as the Iroquois or Six Nations Confederacy. In the early years of the 17th century they resided on the banks of the Mohawk River in what is now upstate New York. They became intensely involved in the fur trade and in the colonial conflicts of the next two centuries. Many had moved to the St. Lawrence River before 1700 and following the American Revolution, the remainder moved to Canada to reside in territories controlled by their ally, Great Britain. Here the Mohawk have prospered, garnering a reputation of militancy in maintaining their language and culture, and for defending their rights.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was likely formed sometime prior to the European penetration of northeastern North America. The history of the formation of the Confederacy gives the Mohawk, and the Mohawk chief, Hiawatha, an important role in forming the political union of the five Haudenosaunee nations residing south and east of Lake Ontario. The five nations included the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca – the Tuscarora people joined later, between 1722 and 1723. The oral record states that the Peacemaker journeyed from his birthplace on the Bay of Quinte to the Mohawk country. Here he encountered Hiawatha and convinced him to take up his message of peace. Hiawatha became spokesperson for the Peacemaker and the two convened a grand council of 50 chiefs. The structure of the Confederacy was established and the Tree of Peace was planted. All Haudenosaunee nations and their allies sit in the shade of that Tree of Peace planted by the Peacemaker.

The Mohawk and their neighbours were agricultural peoples, depending upon the “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash) for sustenance. Responsibility for planting, tending and harvesting these crops lay with the women of the village, although the fields were initially cleared by the men. The villages themselves were relatively large, home to a 1,000 people or more.

Post-Contact

The Mohawk enter the Canadian historical record as enemies of the Huron-Wendat and Algonquin, who were allies of the early French settlers on the St. Lawrence. In 1609 and 1610 they were defeated by these northern neighbours with the assistance of Samuel de Champlain. The Mohawk then looked eastward, where they drove the Mahicans out of the Mohawk Valley and gained access to the Dutch traders of Fort Orange (now Albany, NY). By 1640 they had exhausted beaver stocks in their own country and turned to plundering fur fleets coming to trade with the French. A truce between New France and the Mohawk was arranged in 1645. Father Isaac Jogues attempted to establish a Jesuit mission in their country, but was suspected of witchcraft and killed. Shortly afterward the Mohawk and Seneca combined to drive the Huron from their homeland.

The French burned Mohawk villages in the autumn of 1666 and then pressed for peace. The Jesuits established a mission and encouraged their converts to move to the St. Lawrence, away from English influence, where settlements were established in the 1670s. Among those who migrated was a young Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha, whose devotion to her new Catholic faith resulted in her 2012 canonization by Pope Benedict XVI. In the Mohawk Valley, war between the Mohawk and New France again broke out, and Mohawk towns were burned in 1693, with some of the Catholic Mohawk aiding the French against their kin. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy negotiated treaties of peace and neutrality with the French and English in 1701.

In 1710, three Mohawk chiefs and a Mahican journeyed to London, where they were presented to Queen Anne. To counteract French Jesuit influence, Anglican missionaries were promised to the Mohawk, and the queen presented communion silver for a chapel. Catholic Mohawk from the St. Lawrence played an active role as French allies, participating in the destruction of Deerfield, MA, in 1704 and Groton, MA, in 1707.

Northern Migration

During the 18th century those Mohawk still living in two principal towns on the Mohawk River found themselves increasingly surrounded by European settlers. They adopted the housing styles of their neighbours and were closely tied to the British administration. The superintendent of Indian Affairs for the British, Sir William Johnson, married a Mohawk woman, Mary Brant, and engaged Mohawk warriors against the French in the Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). Johnson died before the outbreak of the American Revolution, but the Mohawk joined that struggle in 1777 under the leadership of Joseph Brant (Mary Brant’s brother), who had just returned from England. Brant and his warriors frequently defeated the Americans in battle but were forced to flee their homes, which were confiscated and used by American settlers.

After the war, Brant and his followers settled on the Grand River on a grant secured for them by Governor Frederick Haldimand (now the Six Nations Reserve). Other Mohawk, under John Deserontyon, settled on the Bay of Quinte. These Mohawk were largely Anglican, and the Queen Anne communion silver was divided between the two reserves.

The Mohawk who settled in Ontario, and those on the St Lawrence, became increasingly incorporated into the economy and society of the settler world surrounding their communities. Mohawk from Kahnawake outside Montréal were skilled boaters and were recruited to ferry General Lord Garnet Wolseley’s army up the Nile in 1884–85 (see Nile Expedition). By the late 19th century many of the Mohawks on the Six Nations Reserve had become highly successful farmers. Although residents of both Kahnawake and St. Regis (Akwesasne) had been Roman Catholic for some 250 years, some of them returned to the Handsome Lake Religion and established longhouse congregations at Kahnawake in the 1920s and Akwesasne in the 1930s.

Contemporary Situation

For well over a century, work in structural steel has been something of a national occupation for the Mohawk, particularly those from Kahnawake. This began in 1886 when the Dominion Bridge Company was building the Saint-Laurent Railway Bridge, which required taking a portion of the Kahnawake Reserve. Having agreed to employ Kahnawake Mohawks on the project, the company quickly realized their skill at steel work. Work in high steel thus became a Kahnawake Mohawk occupation.

Many Mohawk have achieved fame well beyond the bounds of their home communities. Pauline Johnson was highly praised for her poetry and her stage presence at the turn of the 20th century. Jay Silverheels appeared in numerous Hollywood films and played Tonto to television’s Lone Ranger. Kahn-Tineta Horn gained fame as a model and as an outspoken advocate of Mohawk rights. Her daughter Waneek Horn-Miller followed in her steps as an advocate while also co-captaining the Canadian Olympic water polo team in 2000. Stabbed by a soldier’s bayonet as a 14 year old during the Oka Crisis, Horn-Miller continues to be an activist. Roberta Jamieson served as ombudsman for the Ontario government from 1989 to 1999. Robbie Roberston as a boy spent summers among his mother’s kin on the Six Nations Reserve and went on to rock music fame as a member of The Band. Taiaiake Alfred was awarded a Canada Research Chair and is professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria. This is but a small sample; there are many other Mohawk worthy of mention.

The Government of Canada enumerates the registered Mohawk population in 2012 at just over 42,000. Additional Mohawk reside in communities within American jurisdiction. Because such Mohawk – and indeed Haudenosaunee – territories predate the creation of the Canada-US border, some communities, like the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall, ON, straddle the borders between Ontario, Québec and New York State. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reports that for those communities from which it has data, nearly half (45 per cent) of the Mohawk population lives off-reserve. Probably over 3,000 Mohawk continue to speak their traditional language, though data from Statistics Canada on the number of Mohawk speakers are unreliable because large numbers of Mohawk refuse to participate in the Canadian census.

Defence of Traditional Rights

Mohawks have been militant in defending their lands and rights against encroachment and active in pursuing claims of lands they believe were illegally taken from them. In the 1950s the people of Kahnawake resisted the taking of their lands for the St. Lawrence Seaway. Border crossing issues have long been a source of conflict at Akwesasne; and the Mohawk at Kanesatake and Kahnawake came into armed conflict with the Québec police and the Canadian army over land issues at Oka, outside Montréal, in the summer of 1990. At Akwesasne, strong opinions for and against the establishing of gambling casinos led to tragic violence within the community. The Mohawk at the Six Nations Reserve occupied lands in Caledonia, ON, which they argue were illegally taken from them.