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Mohawk Tribe: History, Facts & Culture

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  • 0:01 Who Were the Mohawks?
  • 1:21 Culture
  • 2:48 The Europeans
  • 4:21 Tribal Dispersion
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

The Mohawk tribe originated in the New York state area; they were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. In this lesson, you'll learn about Mohawk culture and history, both before and after the arrival of the European settlers.

Who Were the Mohawks?

The Mohawk tribe, a member of the 'Iroquois Confederacy', originated in what is now the state of New York. Credit for the name 'Mohawk' goes to early Dutch and English settlers, who used it to describe most of the New England tribes. Mohawk means 'man eaters', but there is no record of the Mohawk people behaving as cannibals. Members of the tribe referred to themselves as Kanienkehaka, which means 'people of the place of flint.'

The Mohawks belonged to the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy and, as such, were known as 'keepers of the Eastern door'. The Iroquois Confederacy was a loosely knit group of five, later six, different tribes who promised not to attack, and traded with each other.

All of the Iroquois tribes, including the Mohawk, were semi-sedentary, which meant that they spent part of the year moving around and part of the year in permanent homes. The women worked the fields, farming and harvesting crops, especially corn, while the men hunted and fished. The confederacy was so strong that the British, Dutch and French colonists in North America sought to align themselves with the Iroquois network rather than another European nation.

Culture

The Mohawk had nine representatives in the Iroquois Confederacy, including three representatives from each of its three clans: Turtle, Wolf and Bear. All three clans lived along the bank of the Mohawk River, with the Turtles occupying the easternmost area, and the Bears and Wolves residing in the center and westernmost portions, respectively. Clans consisted of village chiefs and local councils. Like most of the Iroquois, village members lived in longhouses, which could house an average of 20 families related to each other through a matrilineal line. Longhouses were 'domestic dwellings built from poles and covered with sheets of elm bark'.

Mohawk life centered upon a respect for nature. For this reason, Mohawk ceremonies follow the cycle of nature during the year. The tribe held 11 annual festivals that followed agricultural and weather patterns. The Mohawks also had shamans, or holy people who received visions and interpreted dreams.

According to the Mohawks, their chief, Deganawida, also known as the 'Great Peacemaker,' first suggested the creation of the Iroquois Confederacy. While we don't know for sure if this is true, we do know that the Mohawk were the first in the Confederacy to establish trade relations with the Europeans.

The Europeans

As the easternmost tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawks had more contact with the early Europeans settlers than the other tribes. As a result of its trading relationship with the Europeans, the tribe became one of the richest in the Confederacy. The guns and ammunition the Mohawks obtained through these exchanges proved useful against enemy tribes. However, consequences to the relationship included exposure to new diseases, especially smallpox, which greatly diminished the population of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Competition among European nations for an Iroquois alliance remained strong and sometimes led to violence. For example, in 1666, the French burned some Mohawk villages, but then made peace shortly thereafter. Catholic French missionaries, called Jesuits, who built a mission near the Mohawks, not only tried to convert the tribe to Christianity, but also encouraged members to move away from the area, for fear that they'd be unduly influenced by the English.

The Iroquois Confederacy signed peace treaties with both the French and the English in 1701. In 1710, four Mohawk chiefs travelled to London to meet with Queen Anne of England. To offset the efforts of the French Jesuits, Queen Anne promised to send English missionaries to Mohawk territory. By the mid-18th century, the French and Indian War was in full force, and the Mohawks allied with the British against the French.

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