Culture and History

The Mohawk are traditionally the keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Our original homeland is the north eastern region of New York State extending into southern Canada and Vermont. Prior to contact with Europeans the Mohawk settlements populated the Mohawk Valley of New York State. Through the centuries Mohawk influence extended far beyond their territory and was felt by the Dutch who settled on the Hudson River and in Manhattan. The Mohawks’ location as the Iroquois nation closest to Albany and Montreal, and the fur traders there, gave them considerable influence among the other Tribes. This location has also contributed directly to a long and beautifully complicated history.

In the 1750s, to relieve crowding at Kahnawake and to move closer to the Iroquois homeland, the French Jesuits established a mission at the present site on the St. Regis River. The Mohawk people had continually used this site at the confluence of the St. Lawrence River Valley as part of our fishing and hunting grounds prior to the building of the first church. “Akwesasne” as it is known today, translates roughly to “Land where the partridge drums” has always been a prime location due to the confluence of several small rivers and the St. Lawrence River. The Catholic Church records date back to the late 1600’s. Oral history states the church was built on traditional ceremonial grounds.

The community became more populated as Mohawks left the Mohawk Valley under distressed conditions in the mid 1700’s. In 1759 a band of Abenakis sought refuge with the Mohawk people during the French and Indian War, with some remaining behind after their party returned to their own village. In addition, also as a result of the dislocation caused by the war, a number of refugees from the Oswegatchie Mission (near present day Ogdensburg, NY) settled at Saint Regis. After this immigration, the culture at Saint Regis stayed predominately Mohawk. In 1796 the Seven Nations of Canada, which included Christian Mohawks living in St. Regis asserted rights to their lands and were eventually confined to a small parcel of land through a treaty signed by representatives of the Seven Nations of Canada and the State of New York.  Today the Mohawk people of Akwesasne still rightfully claim territory outside the confines of the current boundaries of the reservation and exercise guardianship over these lands through National Historic Preservation Act, Section 106 and Environmental Protection Act processes. 

In 1888, at a Grand Council of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee Confederacy), the Mohawk Nation formally rekindled their fire and responsibilities to the Confederacy as the successor of the descendents of Mohawks who had left the Mohawk Valley a hundred years earlier. The Mohawk people who had maintained their traditional customs and ceremonies restored their place as an “Elder Brother” of the Haudenosaunee. The Confederacy felt it was beneficial to all to remain united, therefore strengthening its position when fighting for Indian rights under treaties previously negotiated with the United States.

After the American War of Independence, the Mohawk people found it necessary to deal with the government of the State of New York. In order to protect themselves and their best interests, the Mohawks decided to select representatives to interact with New York. In the 1930s the Federal Government proposed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Each Tribe was given the opportunity to reject the IRA and the Saint Regis Mohawks did reject the Act of 1935. In 1953, a Federal task force arrived at Saint Regis to prepare termination legislation but the chiefs and Saint Regis people rejected the termination. Despite this, the Bureau of Indian Affairs proposed bill was presented to Congress where it died in committee without serious consideration.

Administrative termination of Tribes continued throughout the 1950s. In the mid-1960s, however, the Federal Government was reminded that there had been no official termination of the Federal relationship with the New York State Iroquois. The acknowledgment of the Federal relationship was slow to manifest itself. Following preliminary findings, the leaders of the Iroquois Tribes, including those of the Saint Regis, were invited to Washington to explore the establishment of a viable relationship.

The History of Tribal Government

In 1802, the Saint Regis Mohawk selected trustees and a clerk at a community meeting held on the reservation. The New York State legislature passed a law recognizing three trustees and a clerk as the Mohawk people's chosen representatives. The trustees’ primary purpose was to give a voice to the Saint Regis Mohawks who lived on the American side of the Mohawk territory, thus in New York and to oversee certain aspects of the relationship with non-Native governments. It is not believed the trustees initially usurped the role of life chiefs (who were chosen in a more traditional manner and held their positions for life) who continued to control the internal affairs of the Tribe. However, two of the original trustees were also life chiefs.

By 1818, two of the original trustees has passed away and two new trustees were chosen, both of whom were also life chiefs. This unique mixture of tradition and adaptability coupled with strong non-Native influences, brought about a new form of government. The present Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council has emerged from those changes.

Throughout the 19th century the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Government evolved to a point where the trustees were called Tribal Chiefs, formalized elections are now scheduled each year and definite terms of office were established. The Tribal Council is comprised of three Chiefs, three Sub-Chiefs and a Tribal Clerk.

The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chiefs are responsible for setting policy and making major decisions on behalf of the tribe. They oversee the operation of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal government and assure that quality programs and services are made available to the Mohawk people. The Tribal Clerk maintains the official records of Council.  New York State and the United States Federal Government deal with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council on a government-to-government level. The Tribal Council has received Federal and State funds for a variety of tribally administered programs since 1973, all of which primarily employ Mohawk people.

Today, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe administers it own environmental, social, policing, economic, health and educational programs, policies, laws and regulations.

Cultural Preservation

The Kanienkehaka, or Mohawks as they are known in English, have managed to preserve, maintain and foster a unique culture for thousands of years. This dynamic culture has survived, despite the oppressive odds brought about with the arrival of Europeans in what is now known as North America. In America and Americans, noted author John Steinbeck wrote, "The Indians survived our open intention of wiping them out, and since the tide turned they have even weathered our good intentions toward them, which can be much more deadly."

Generic terms like Indian, American Indian, Native American or Aboriginal people are used today. The Iroquois people prefer to be known by their specific nation names, thus Mohawks should be referred to as Mohawks or Kanienkehake People of the Flint.

The Kanienkehaka/Mohawks constitute one of six nations within the Iroquois Confederacy. The others are the Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas and the Tuscaroras. Scholars and historians credit the Iroquois Confederacy as being the model upon which of the Constitution of the United States is based.

Archaeological findings at Garoga in Fulton County have confirmed that Mohawks have occupied lands, now known as New York State, since at least 1600 A.D.

The contributions of these Iroquoian people to European survival on this continent is significant. Research shows the Mohawks were experts in the fields of hunting, trapping, fishing and agriculture, contributing many, many different species of fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs to today's menu. Without these contributions it is safe to say the lifestyle of the Europeans in North America would not have developed as rapidly as it did.

Mohawk people of today have combined centuries-old ways of living into 20th century everyday life. The values of their historical culture still remain present in their daily life. Their distinctive heritage, language, ceremonies and traditional beliefs are still revered and maintained. The code of everyday living, "The Great Law", has been kept alive by verbal teachings and continued practices for hundreds of years. People still honor the traditional system of Chieftainship, Clan Mothers and Faith keepers.

The system of clans, or family lineage, is still kept intact. Among the Iroquois, descent and consequently clan membership are traced through the mother's family line only.

The Mohawk people strongly believe in perpetuating their language, songs, dances and special ceremonies in the old way within traditional Longhouses. Failure to keep sacred this tradition would be in violation of the teachings passed on to them by the Creator.

Mohawk people recognize that they belong to a very distinct society, and as unconquered people living in a nation within a nation will continue to exist and hold steadfast to their culture and traditions within today's modern society.

Catalog of Mohawk Collections at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (pdf - 59.12 MB).  Warning, very large file, 1,461 pages.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and its missionaries have interacted with the Mohawk people. The Saint Regis Mohawks, as their name reflects, have had a close association with the Church for more than 200 years. While some aspects of that association were not very positive, one particular part of the relationship is a source of pride and inspiration for most Mohawks. More than 300 years ago a young Mohawk woman embraced the Catholic faith and carried out works of charity and benevolence among her people for most of her very short life.

Her name was Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri, the Iroquois form of Catherine (her baptized name), means pure and Tekakwitha translated means putting things in order. Her very name signifies the mission for which her life and death are now remembered.

The poor health which plagued her throughout her life and caused her violent pain effected her death in 1680 at the tender age of 24 years. The Roman Catholic Church has honored Kateri Tekakwitha for her devotion to Christ and her commitment to charity and chastity. The present day Mohawk Catholics have prayed and worked to see Kateri canonized as a saint.  

In 1943, the Vatican bestowed the title venerable on Kateri, this was the first step toward canonization. In June 1980, she was beatified and known as Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. In October 2012, hundreds of Mohawks and other Catholic Indian people from throughout the United States and Canada journeyed to the Vatican in Rome Italy to see Kateri elevated to full status as a saint.  The cannonization of Kateri Tekakwitha took place on October 21, 2012 with six other candidates.