We were recently asked by a curious young person … Who exactly are the Iroquois and how do the relate to the Mohawk? We wrote about the Mohawk woman Kateri Tekakwitha in an earlier blog, but we thought we better clarify the relationship of the Mohawk Nation to the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the League of Six Nations.
The Mohawk are a distinct tribe, one of six in the Iroquois Confederacy, the others being the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca. The greater Sharon Springs region is part of the ancestral Mohawk homeland, as indicated by the fact that the Mohawk River to the north takes its name from the tribe.
Regarding the formation of the confederacy, sometime between 1450 and 1600 (the date 1570 is often given), or possibly even earlier, the Huron mystic Deganawida and his Mohawk disciple Hiawatha (not to be confused with Longfellow’s fictional Hiawatha) founded the League of Five Nations – an alliance of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca – in what is now upstate New York. The hope was to end the feuding among close neighbors and establish a military advantage over other tribes, thus ensuring survival. A “Great Peace” hopefully would follow, embracing the known Iroquois world.
After the Tuscarora War of 1711-12 between English colonists and the Tuscarora in North Carolina, members of that tribe migrated north, originally settling among the Oneida and, in 1722, gaining recognition in the confederacy, which became the League of Six Nations. Given the military power of the allied tribes, the Iroquois eventually controlled a huge expanse of territory, east to west from the Hudson River to the Illinois River, and north to south, from the Ottawa River to the Tennessee River.
Iroquois is a French adaptation of a Native tribal name from the colonial period. The language family of the Iroquois is known as Iroquoian, which is not exclusive to the six Iroquois tribes – the Huron to the north among others also spoke an Iroquoian dialect. The Native name of the Iroquois is the Haudenosaunee for “They Are Building a Long House,” more commonly translated as “People of the Longhouse.”
Longhouses were constructed out of a post-and-beam or bent sapling frames covered with slabs of elm bark. On the average these dwellings were about 60 feet long by 18 feet wide, with a pointed or rounded roof about 18 feet high and with doors at both ends. They were divided into compartments for different families with raised platforms for sleeping and had central fireplaces with smoke holes in the roof.
The longhouse became a symbol for the alliance itself. The Haudenosaunee have traditionally thought of their confederacy as a longhouse extending across upstate New York, with the Mohawk Nation perceived as the Keeper of the Eastern Door, and the Seneca Nation, as the Keeper of the Western Door. In between those two tribes are the Oneida Nation, Onondaga Nation, Cayuga Nation, and Tuscarora Nation. As the centrally located tribe, the Onondaga play the role of Keepers of the Council Fire and host the Great Council, still held every year.
The founding fathers who shaped the new United States government after the American Revolution are thought to have used the Iroquois Confederacy as a model. The various states were like the different tribes; the senators and congressmen, like the 50 tribal representatives; the president and his cabinet, like the honorary Pine Tree Sachems, the primary spokesmen for their tribes; and Washington, D.C., like Onondaga, the main Onondaga village hosting the Great Council.
Haudenosaunee presently hold reservation lands in New York, Ontario, and Quebec. Others have holdings in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Individuals and families have also moved to urban areas. In New York City, a Brooklyn community of high-steel workers, most of them Mohawk from Canadian reserves, has developed.
During and after the American Revolution, the Mohawk, who sided with the defeated Loyalists, departed their homes along the Mohawk River, most of them moving to Canada. In 1993, a group of Mohawk from the Akwesasne Reserve, straddling the Saint Lawrence River in both Canada and the U.S., purchased a piece of property on the north shore of the Mohawk River west of Fonda, about 20 miles to the northeast of Sharon Springs. In their ancestral homeland they established a community known as Kanatsiohareke (“Place of the Clean Pot”), one of eight present Mohawk territories in New York and Canada. The residents speak the Mohawk dialect of Iroquoian, hold traditional ceremonies, and practice traditional farming. They also maintain a bed-and-breakfast and a store selling Mohawk arts and crafts. Kanatsiohareke is another great place to visit near Sharon Springs.
The History Boys are
Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.
Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.