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The Kanien'kehá:ka - People of the Flint

The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) of Kahnawake speak a language that belongs to the Iroquois family. The Iroquoian-speaking peoples of North America include the Cherokee from the Southern Appalachian area; the Tuscarora and the Susquehanna of the mid-Atlantic region; and the Huron, Wenro, Erie, Tobacco, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca of the Great Lakes –St. Lawrence River Valley regions of North America. These last five nations; the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca are the most renown of the Iroquoian linguistic group, particularly for the alliance or Confederation called the League of the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse. They were also known as the Five Nations Confederacy, now Six Nations.

The Aionwá:tha Wampum Belt (above)
and Two Row Wampum Belt (Below).

The people of the Six Nations believe that they are endowed with a unique heritage. Formed from the living earth, and sharing the very breath of Tharonhiawá:kon, their lineage is a special one. They call themselves Onkwehón:we, or Original people. Cadwallder Colden, and eighteenth century English writer offered another interpretation of Onkwehón:we. Writing in an introduction describing a council between Sir William Johnson and the confederacy, Colden notes that the Iroquois, “…think for themselves, by nature, superior to the rest of mankind, and assume the name Ongwe-honwe, that is, men surpassing all others. This opinion gives them that courage, which has been so terrible to all the nations of North America… They have such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority, and banish all servitude form their territories.”

The League of the Five Nations is a social and political alliance that reflects the Iroquois’ conceptualization of the harmony of the universe. The League is a league of peace, dedicated to cooperative social action, mutual assistance, and the elimination of strife and struggle. In his book Indians of America, John Collier called the Iroquois Confederacy the “greatest political society ever devised by man… I think no institutional achievement of mankind exceeds it in either wisdom or intelligence.”

The language of and imagery of the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee speaks best for the spirit and function of the League:

"Roots have spread out from the Tree of the Great Peace, one to the south, one to the north, one to the east and one to the west. These are the Great White Roots, and their nature is peace and strength…

We place at the top of the Tree of the great Peace an eagle, who is able to see afar. If he sees in the distance any danger threatening, he will at once warn the people of the League…

I, Tekanawí:ta, and the united chiefs, now uproot the tallest tree and into the hole we cast all the weapons of war . Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underneath currents of water flowing to unknown regions we cast al the weapons of strife. We bury then from sight and we plant again the tree. This shall the Great Peace be established and hostilities shall no longer be known between the Five Nations, but peace to the united people."

First Contact and the Two Row Wampum
Due to their eastern location, the Kanien’kehá:ka were the first nation of the Confederacy to make contact with the new comers to North American. The first Europeans to meet the Kanien’kehá:ka were the French, who arrived in 1534 with Jacques Cartier. Cartier and his men did not pave a smooth road for the other Europeans who followed. They exposed the Kanien’kehá:ka to treachery and despair after the Kanien’kehá:ka had taken them in, relieving them from hunger and curing them of scurvy.

When Samuel De Champlain arrived in the St. Lawrence River Valley in 1608, the Kanien’kehá:ka were at war with the Algonquin. Champlain allied himself with the Algonquin and lost the trust of the Kanien’kehá:ka. For a short time, French interference and their supply of firearms to the Algonquin, allowed the Algonquin to over power the Kanien’kehá:ka. Cartier and Champlain had showed the Kanien’kehá:ka that the newcomers were different than any of the people who the Kanien’kehá:ka had dealt with for centuries.

The first Europeans who established continues contact with the Kanien’kehá:ka were the Dutch. Henry Hudson, an Englishman employed by the Dutch East Indian company, sailed u the Hudson River in 1608 and Fort orange (Albany) was established in 1624. the Mahicans were at war with the Kanien’kehá:ka and the Dutch allied themselves with the Mahicans. Six Dutch soldiers and their commander, Kreickebeck, joined a battle which took place nine miles upriver from Albany. Although the Dutch had firearms, the Kanien’kehá:ka were victorious and Kreickebeck and his three men were killed. Shortly after, the Mahicans were defeated the few remaining permanently left the territory.

 Painting of Teionhéhkhwen (Hendrick)
Mohawk Wolf Clan Chief
 During diplomatic mission to England in 1710. 
The Kanien’kehá:ka were puzzled as to why the Dutch had allied themselves with the Mahican. The Kanien’kehá:ka had never done anything to disrupt the peace between themselves and the Dutch. The newcomers did not understand the ways of the people on Turtle Island (North America). As a result of their experiences, the Haudenosaunee realized that a special agreement was needed in order to restore peace with the Dutch. The Two Row Wampum concept was introduced, recognizing an agreement of peace and respect for each other’s way of life.

The understanding was recoded with belt of wampum. Wampum beads are made from the shells of the Quahog clam. The belt was made with a background of white wampum beads with two rows of purple that run parallel from one end to the other. The words that go with the explanation of the Two Row Wampum speak of the relationship that should exist between the parties involved in the agreement.

The background of white bead represents a river and the two parallel rows of purple beads represent two vessels traveling the river. It is recognized that the river is large enough for the two vessels to travel down together. In one vessel shall be found the Haudenosaunee and in the other, the Dutch. Each vessel shall carry the laws, traditions, customs, languages, and spiritual beliefs of each nation; in short, all which makes a people who they are.

It is the responsibility of the people in each vessel to steer a straight course. Neither the Dutch nor the Haudenosaunee shall interfere with the lives of the other. Neither side shall attempt to bring or force heir laws, traditions, customs, languages, and spirituality upon the other. Such is the agreement of mutual respect that is recorded in the Two Row Wampum.

The Haudenosaunee Nation has used the principles embodied in the Two Ro Wampum as the initial guide or set of rules for relations between themselves and any other nation. They have been careful to abide by the concept that was developed so long ago and each succeeding generation is taught the importance of maintaining the principles of the Two Row Wampum

Posted with permission from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and CulturalCenter. Adapted and edited by Teiowí:sonte.

Kanièn:keh Territory
Kanièn:keh, the name of the ancient homeland of the Kanien’kehá:ka, encompasses an area of nine million acres. The name translates to Land of the Flint. The borders of the territory are marked by using natural boundaries. On the north, the territory is bound by the St. Lawrence River Valley. The eastern border is the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River waterways. To the south, the natural border is the Mohawk River Valley. To the west, Kanièn:keh border the territory of the Oneida.

The Haudenosaunee are traditionally a farming people. Subsistence was heavily based on the growth of corn, beans and squash; the Three Sisters of Haudenosaunee legend. The agricultural base was complemented by hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering on a seasonal basis. The Kanien’kehá:ka were extremely wealthy in the fests within their traditional territory.

There are several key features of the territory that we call Kanièn:keh. To the north is the St. Lawrence River Valley, a fertile area that is well suited to agriculture. In central Kanièn:keh Territory are the Adirondack Mountains, which quite appropriate as a hunting ground. To the south lies the Mohawk River Valley, the Kanien’kehá:ka metropolis of old, another area that is well suited to agricultural pursuits. Throughout the entire territory there is an abundance of fresh water lakes and rivers. These lakes and rivers furnishes the Kanien’kehá:ka with a constant supply of fish.

Today the Kanien’kehá:ka inhabit eight communities in what is now known as Ontario, Quebec, and New York.

  • Wáhta - In the Muskoka Lakes region of Georgian Bay, north of Toronto.
  • Oshwé:ken - On the Grand River; near Hamilton, Ontario.
  • Tyendinega - On the Bay of Quite; near Belleville, Ontario.
  • Ganienkeh - West of Plattsburgh, New York.
  • Kana’tsioharé:ke – On the Mohawk River; west of Albany, New York.
  • Ahkwesáhsne - On the St. Lawrence River; straddling the US/Canadian border near Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York.
  • Kanehsatà:ke – On the Lake of Two Mountains; west of Montreal, Quebec.
  • Kahnawà:ke – On the St. Lawrence River; south of Montreal, Quebec.

Until European contact in the 16th century, the Kanien’kehá:ka occupied wide ranging parts of their territory from the settlements of the Mohawk River Valley to Hochelaga on the island of Montreal. Immediately after this initial contact period, the Kanien’kehá:ka withdrew into the Mohawk River Valley for security. It was there that the greatest concentration of Kanien’kehá:ka communities were to be found. It wasn’t until 1667 that the first recorded reference to an Iroquois settlements in northern Kanièn:keh was made since first contact.

Posted with permission from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and CulturalCenter.

Kahnawake and the Resettlement of Northern Kanièn:keh
The Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) are considered to be the “foundation of the Great Peace”, sharing with the Seneca the responsibility for guarding the doorways to the Longhouse, symbol of the Confederacy. Because of their location in the east, the Mohawk were the first of the Confederacy to maintain continued contact with Europeans. They had established trade contacts with the Dutch in the early seventeenth century. Soon after this, the Dutch and the Mohawk negotiated a Friendship Treaty, describes as follows:

We must thank the Creator for all of his creations; and greet one another by holding hands to show the covenant chain that binds our friendship so that we may walk upon this earth in peace, trust, love, and friendship, and we may smoke the sacred tobacco in a pipe which is a symbol of peace.

Indomitable statesmen, the Iroquois Grand Council also included treaty agreements with the English and the archrivals, the French. The diplomatic strategy of the Five Nations reflected the ideal of sovereignty that the League guarded so jealously. When a treaty arrangement was negotiated with one power, the Iroquois did not then regard themselves as a vassal to that power, but rather as a co-equal nation, sharing all of the rights, responsibilities, and prerogatives that nationhood entailed.

Traditionally, the Mohawk were swidden (slash and burn) agriculturalists; moving villages from time to time to prevent soil erosion and exhaustion. In some instances Mohawk settlements were relocated in order to in order to give the whole nation a better vantage point in dealing with other native nations r Europeans. Often migrations were accompanied by military alliance, and in some cases by religious conversion. The Six Nations Confederacy fought different nations between the years of 1608 and 1667. At various times, the Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais allied themselves with the French and were at war with the Haudenosaunee.

In 1667, a group of Oneida and Mohawk moved from the homes around Albany and settled at La Prairie, a French Jesuit retreat sound of Montreal. Most of these Mohawk and Oneida had been converted to Catholicism, by Jesuit missionaries in the southern canons. Their numbers swelled during the next nine years and by 1676 there were more inhabitants at Kentá:ke (on the prairie, the name given to La Prairie by the Iroquois) than the land could support, and a migration was planned to Kahnawake, further up the St, Lawrence River.

Kentá:ke had been a Jesuit residence that receive Mohawk from the south, the newly established settlement of Kahnawà:ke was from its beginning an Iroquois community. The Mohawk called their new settlement Kahnawà:ke after the name of another settlement two hundred miles south, on the Mohawk River; to the French it was Sault St. Louis; to the English, Caughnawaga.

Posted with permission from the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and CulturalCenter. Adapted and edited by Teiowí:sonte.

Haudenosaunee Cycle of Ceremonies
The Mohawk Nation at Kahnawà:ke, as Haudenosaunee people, follow a familiar cycle of ceremonies that define the spiritual foundation of our people.  Haudenosaunee spirituality dwells on our duty and responsibility to be thankful to the natural world which provides for our health and well-being.  The Haudenosaunee spiritual calendar is cyclical and starts over each year with the Midwinter Festival.

The Mohawk Nation at Kahnawà:ke follow a spiritual calendar as defined by the natural world:

Sha’tekohshérhon – Midwinter Festival
Ohkhí:we – Feast for the Dead
Wáhta – Maple festival
Ratiwé:ras – Thunder Dance
Ká:nen & Onónhkwa - Medicine & Seed Festival
Ken’niiohontésha - Strawberry Festival
Skanekwenhtará:ne – Raspberry Festival
Orhóntseri – Green Bean Festival
Okahseró:ta Green Corn Festival
Kaienthókwen - Harvest Festival
Atierakhonsera’kó:wa - End of Season Feast

At certain festivals, there are four sacred ceremonies - Kaié:ri Niiorí:wake - that are conducted.  They are:

Ostowa’kó:wa – The Great Feather Dance
Atón:wa – Men’s Personal Thanksgiving
Kanehó:ron – The Drum dance
Kaientowá:nen – The Bowl Game

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