The Mohawks of Akwesasne

Due to its distinctive geographical location along the St. Lawrence River, which “serves as one of the natural division lines between Canada and the United States,” the Mohawks of Akwesasne have familiarized themselves to the media and the civic society.

Some have called the Mohawks “the most stubborn Native Community in North America, not only for (their) enduring commitment to (their) Ancient Mohawk Territories and Resources, but also for the strong positions (they) maintain over the Aboriginal Rights of (their) Community and (their) Kahniakehaka (Mohawk) Nation” (Akwesasne para. 1). Despite government intervention (or disturbance) on the affairs of the Mohawk community, they have remained unrelenting in upholding the honor of their indigenous tribe. The so-called “battle” for sustainability has been thriving for many decades now.

Akwesasne and the Mohawks

Akwesasne is the home of the Mohawk community.  Akwesasne borders the countries of Canada and the United States of America, the Candian Province of Ontario and Quebec; and the American State of New York (Akwesasne para. 2). Because of its location, the jurisdiction of this land is not determined until now. This confusion has caused problems for the 13,000 Mohawks living in Akwesasne, however, they have survived the struggle of adjusting to their jurisdictional condition over the years.

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As a result, this minority has managed to build solid and independent socio-economic endeavors for their people who are bestowed with many gifts, talents, knowledge, experience, and expertise in various fields of work and art. Over the past ten years, dynamic changes have provided this Mohawk community the opportunity to responsibly manage their Infrastructure, Health and Social Services, Judicial and Law Enforcement System, Environment and Conservation, and Housing and Economic Initiatives (Akwesasne para. 3).

Akwesasne Community Profile

The Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne is located within the Ancient Homelands of (its) Ancestor, which (their) People have occupied and used since time immemorial (Akwesasne para.7). The people are embedded with unexplainable affection to this area composed of approximately 26,000 acres in land mass (about fifty square miles in total area).

Comprised of breathtaking islands, the Mohawk community is located within the glorious St. Lawrence River and mainland contained by the St. Lawrence River Valley. It can be found near major Canadian cities such as Ottawa, Ontario and Monteal, Quebec. There are four inhabited districts in the region including Kanatakon/St. Regis Village and Tsi Snaihe/Chenail Districts (within Quebec), Kawennoke/Cornwall Island District (within Ontario), and Tekaswenkarorens/Hogansburg District (within New York).

History of Akwesasne and the Mohawks

Akwesasne is Mohawk community that rightfully deserves the title, “First Nation” (Bonaparte para. 1). It used to be a “place of peace” which served as a safe haven from war for the early Mohawks and other indigenous peoples. Formerly the smallest Mohawk village, but today, Akwesasne is already the largest in terms of population and territory. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy considers Akwesasne the “capital” of the seven communities that make up the Mohawk Nation (Bonaparte, para 1).

The term Mohawk can be literally translated as “place of partridges” since thousands of a species of game bird are surrounding the shores of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries.  The first Mohawks and natives of Akwesasne engaged in hunting, fishing, and trading. A certain group by the name “St. Lawrence Iroquoians” (their identity is still debatable) was believed to have built pillars of “longhouse villages found in the rich soil of the St. Lawrence River Valley.” According to artifacts, “St. Lawrence Iroquoians” were captured and hid in a village called Hochelaga which was considered as one with the Mohawk community.

Wars followed and the Mohawks fought against the tribes, Hurons and Algonquins, who were under French control during that time. In time more than half of the Mohawk population (which had already been weakened by epidemics and war) migrated to the village on the south bank of the St. Lawrence near the Lachine Rapids (Bonaparte para. 5). They formed a new community which they called Kahnawake (at the rapids) where the Hurons, Algonquins, and other Iroquois converts (converted by the Jesuits) from Oneida and Onondaga united with them.

Bonaparte’s study also focused and expounded on the “Seven Nations of Canada” as stated:

In time the population of these villages grew so large that new ones were established. By the 1750’s these villages eventually united in an alliance that Mohawks knew as Tsiata Nihononwentsiake, also known as the Seven Nations of Canada, the Seven Fires, and the Seven Villages.

When this union was formalized, it consisted of the Mohawks of Kahnawake (Caughnawaga); the Mohawks, Algonquins, and Nippissings of Kanesatake (Oka); the Abenakis of Odanak (St. Francis) in what is now southern Quebec; the Hurons of Wendake (Lorette), just west of Quebec City; and the Iroquois (mostly Oneidas and Onondagas) of Sawehkatsi (Oswegatchie), site of present-day Ogdensburg, New York. Even though as many as twenty-two different nations were represented at these new settlements by the early 1700’s, they were nevertheless able to maintain a distinct cultural identification as Huron, Algonquin, and Iroquois communities in their own right (para. 6).

The cultural model of this new confederacy was the Rotinonsionni (“People of the Longhouse,”) also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Five Nations, the Six Nations, and the League of the Iroquois (Bonaparte para. 7). Despite strong Jesuit influence over the Mohawks, they have remained a strong clan and have maintained their cultural practices and customs.

Relations between the Seven Nations of Canada and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy during the last decades of the 18th century were contentious thanks to the mad rush of land sales and treaty negotiations that stirred up old animosities and disputes over territory (Bonaparte para. 21). At this time, war broke out causing so much suffering for the people of Akwesasne. Many colonizers tried to change the traditional system of the Mohawks but they remained firm and have shunned away these invaders.

The last decade of the 19th century saw drastic changes in the political landscape of Akwesasne and the other Mohawk communities, who were still governed by the old “life chiefs” (Bonaparte para. 22). Non-native governments tried to implement a new electoral system but these were rejected by the Mohawks to the extent of causing trouble. The life chiefs were punished; however, they did not give up hoping that the traditional election would be restored.

In spite of these affronts to Mohawk cultural and political sovereignty, the last half of the 19th century witnessed a cultural renaissance of sorts at Akwesasne and her fellow Mohawk communities (Bonaparte para. 23). This includes the emergence of native products such as Mohawk baskets, beadwork, snowshoes, cradleboards, and the rise of their high-steel construction industry, which gave occupation to the Mohawks. Throughout the early 20th century the identification of the Mohawk communities with the banner of the Seven Nations of Canada began to wane in favor of that of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, viewed by many as older and purer of the two since it originated long before European contact (Bonaparte para. 25).

In the early part of the 20th century, the Mohawks engaged in exporting liquor from Canada to the United States, which was not as open as the past centuries because of controlled legislations on liquor transportation. Throughout the last decades of the 20th century, Akwesasne continued to feel the long-term effects of the St. Lawrence Seaway (Bonaparte para.33). The agricultural and fishing industry weakened so the Mohawks were forced to seek greener pastures by working in factories and establishments in big cities in New York. Cultural issues conflicted with this economic stabilization. Mohawks, who moved away from Akwesasne, felt estrangement and have adapted non-Mohawk practices.

Present Situation of the Mohawks

Currently, commercialization and expansion of the Mohawks have become prevalent and have changed the lives of these indigenous people in one way or another. Their rich history and cultural heritage may be taken for granted by some but historians and anthropologists who have studied this unique tribe continue to hope that the difference it has made in this world would be appreciated by present-day societies. The remaining Mohawk community is still active though in promoting and maintaining the culture they have always been accustomed to, which is making them a stronger nation.

Works Cited

Bonaparte, D. n.d. The History of Akwesasane from Pre-Contact to Modern Times. 3 July 2007 <http://www.wampumchronicles.com/history.html>.

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