Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Iroquois (II): The Mohawk People

Location:   Northeastern New York State
Year:  Before the 13th Century (?)

The Mohawks are the easternmost people of the Iroquois Confederacy. They occupied a large land area in upstate New York and Quebec that includes the Adirondack Mountains, the St. Lawrence River valley, and the area around present-day Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. 

Most of the Mohawks lived in the cities of Schoharie, Canajoharie, and along the Mohawk River. The rest of their territory was hunting ground, open to use by other members of the Confederation.  

Given the amorphous boundaries of their territory, the Mohawks were usually engaged in defensive wars with tribes not of the Confederation, such as the Pequot and the Mohicans. Called "The Keepers of The Eastern Door" by the other Iroquois tribes, the Mohawk were tasked with protecting the Confederation from invasion. They also aggressively sought to extend Iroquois hegemony in the northeast. 

The name "Mohawk" means "Bear People," and was applied to them by the Pequots, though they called themselves "Kanienkahaka," the Flint Stone People, since they had mastered the art of stone tool making very early in their history. Hiawatha, the companion of Deganawida The Great Peacemaker, was a Mohawk, and the Mohawks were the first tribe to ratify Gayanashagowa. 

The Mohawks first came into contact with both the French (from the north) and the Dutch (from the south) around 1600. Although relations with the Dutch were peaceful overall, and the Dutch were able to establish trading posts at Fort Nassau (Albany) and Schenectady, the Dutch also used the Mohawks to rid themselves of less-amenable Indian tribes. In the 1650s, the Dutch convinced the Canarsie, an Algonkian tribe living in present-day Brooklyn, to forego payment of their traditional tribute to the Iroquois. In response, the Mohawks swept down the Hudson Valley, attacking local tribes as they went, claiming their land, and, upon reaching Canarsie territory, essentially exterminated the tribe. The other Indians of Paumanok submitted to the Iroquois. 

Relations with the French were less peaceful. Entering Mohawk territory near Lake Champlain, they battled the Mohawks for control of the area for decades. Peace was finally established when the Mohawks agreed to permit Jesuit missionaries to come among their people. Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a young Mohawk woman converted to Catholicism, helped spread the new faith among the Mohawks. 

St. Kateri
During the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois split ranks for the first time in their history. The Mohawks, under Chief Thayendanegea, called Joseph Brant, (1743-1807) sided with the British.  After the Revolution, Brant moved to Canada along with most of his followers.

The Mohawks sided with the British again during the War of 1812, and afterward, most of the remaining Mohawks moved north.  Although they remained on Mohawk land, they had little autonomy. Eventually, Mohawk communities were re-established in northernmost New York State. 

Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant)

By far the most famous Mohawk was Jay Silverheels, who played the Lone Ranger's Indian companion, Tonto.

The Mohawks today either live on widely-separated Reservations under local leadership, or among Euro-Americans. 

New York City has a relatively large Mohawk community, specializing in high-rise construction, and they are renowned for their skills and ability to walk surefooted in the sky. 

The Iroquois Confederacy still exists, and the Mohawks have been instrumental in revivifying it in recent decades.


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