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What is the Mohawk Nation?

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  • Written By: Brenda Scott
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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The Mohawk Nation is a Native American tribe originally located in the New York state region, near what is now the city of Albany. Called the Kanienkeha:ka, or people of the flint, the tribe was given the name Mohawk, or man eaters, by their enemies the Algonquin. The Europeans adopted the name as well, due to its ease in pronunciation, and it is has been accepted as the legal name of the tribe.

The Mohawk Nation joined the Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, and Onondaga in forming the Iroquois Confederacy. They were later joined by the Tuscarora tribe and are often referred to as the Six Nations. Established on 31 August, 1142, the Iroquois Confederacy is the oldest constitutional democracy on earth. Led by elected chiefs, the Confederacy existed for mutual defense, and each member nation was given a territory to protect. The Mohawk Nation was appointed as Guardian of the Eastern Door, and had the duty of protecting the Iroquois nations from eastern invaders.

Like other Confederacy members, the Mohawk Nation maintained its own national sovereignty. The people were organized into three distinct matrilineal groups; the turtle, wolf and bear clans. Mohawk women played a significant role in tribal governance. Children belonged to the clan of their mother, and the women elected the local chief. Women also made land and resource related decisions, while the men were responsible for decisions regarding war and trade.

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The Mohawk were farmers, fishermen and hunters who lived in large settlements. They lived in longhouses constructed of logs and bark which sheltered up to twenty families. In 1609, Henry Hudson was one of the first Europeans to make contact with the Mohawk Nation, and in time the Dutch and Mohawk became allies. After New Amsterdam went under the control of the English, who changed the name of the settlement to New York, the Mohawk transferred their allegiance to the British.

In 1775, as tensions increased between the English and colonists, the member nations of the Iroquois Confederacy strove to maintain a neutral position. This stand was challenged by the Mohawk chief Theyebdbegea, called Joseph Brant by the English. Educated in British schools, Brant was fluent in several languages including English, Greek and Latin, and translated the New Testament into his native tongue. In 1776 he traveled to England and was presented to the King's Court. Upon his return, Brant traveled to the different Iroquois nations urging them to join the English in the war, claiming that this was the only way to stop the spread of white settlement.

The American Revolution was one of the only times in the long history of the Iroquois Confederacy when member nations fought against one another. Some of the Iroquois followed Brant and allied with the English. The Oneida and Tuscarora chose to join the Americans, and the tribes repeatedly clashed during the war. After the English withdrew, members of the Mohawk Nation and other tribes who had fought with Brant were forced to relocate in Canada.

The Mohawk Nation now resides in Canada and the United States around Quebec, Ontario and New York. In 1892 the New York state government formally recognized the St. Regis Tribal Council as the ruling body of the Mohawk people. Originally staffed by three trustees and one clerk, the Council now has three chiefs and three sub-chiefs, each chosen through democratic elections for three year terms. The Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, also staffed by elected officials, is the administrative agency of the tribe.

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