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Kanienkehaka Lifeways - Mohawk Valley, circa 1500

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Illustration copyright Francis Back.

Who are the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk)?

Kanienkehaka means "People of the Flint" in Kanienkeha, their language. They are an Iroquoian people, sharing language and culture with other nations from the area around the eastern Great Lakes. The Kanienkehaka's enemies called them "Mohawks," which has various uncomplimentary meanings such as poisonous snake or cannibal, and this name was adopted by the Europeans who came to dominate the continent. The Kanienkehaka call their homeland Kanienkeh, which means "land of the flint" and extends from the Mohawk River on the south to the St. Lawrence on the north, and from Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River on the east to the Oneida nation on the west. The Kanienkehaka were members of the great Rotinonsionni or Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy, along with the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations (later Six Nations with the addition of the Tuscarora in the 1720s).

The Forest and the Clearing

In the winter scene illustrated, we see a hunting party returning with a deer, and a man fishing through a hole in the ice. Deer and fish were important elements of the Kanienkehaka diet. Men were responsible for hunting; their domain was the forest. Women of the village stand ready to receive the deer carcass and distribute it to their longhouse, an Iroquois dwelling where six to ten related families lived. Women's domain was "the clearing" that we see here: the village and its surrounding fields, at the edges of which they gathered medicinal plants and in which they grew corn, beans, and squash. These crops, the "Three Sisters," were the basis of the people's diet and enabled development of large, permanent communities. Kanienkehaka settlements were often on hilltops and surrounded by palisades 10-12 feet tall. They were also usually sited close to navigable water, like the river shown in the picture above.

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The village surrounded by the clearing and the forest.
Drawing courtesy of the New York State Museum, Albany, N.Y.


In the winter longhouse at night, when everyone gathered around the fire for warmth and protection, the elders would tell the stories that held the heritage of the nation. "This is what my grandfather and generations of grandfathers before him were in the habit of telling, about how the earth and the people came to be," they would begin.

The Kanienkehaka Creation Story tells of a time before time when the world was all ocean and sky, and a Sky-World above it was populated by Spirit Beings similar to humans. One of them, a pregnant woman, fell through a hole in the sky, but her fall was broken by birds who brought her to rest on a great turtle. This Mother Earth, Aientsik, with the help of the animals, created our world on the turtle's back, which grew and became covered with helpful plants. Her daughter's offspring, the twins Okwiraseh (Sapling) and Thawiskaron (Flint), created more animals and features of this world—Okwiraseh with the goal of making the world ready for humans, and Thawiskaron to make life difficult. In a bowl game with peach pits (like dice), Okwiraseh won the right to rule the day and our world, while his contentious twin Thawiskaron rules the night and the lower world. Okwiraseh created human beings from clay in his image and animated them with part of his own life and powers. He charged the humans to continue his work of creation by cultivating the earth and to remain thankful for his gifts, the good things of the earth. (For the complete creation story in text and audio, please visit the Voices & Songs menu.)

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This symbol, used in Kanienkehaka beadwork, represents the twins and the three levels of the cosmos: the Sky-World, the human's world, and the lower world.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson.

The creation story is the source of Kanienkehaka values and culture. The earth is a woman, the mother of all living things: in Kanienkehaka society, property is held and inherited by women. Animals, plants, and the earth itself are alive, fellow creatures whose lives must be respected and with whom responsibility for the world is shared. As Okwiraseh directed, thankfulness is highly valued. The Thanksgiving Address is given at all ceremonies and festivals. When Kanienkehaka kill animals in the hunt or gather medicinal herbs or strip elm bark to make a canoe, they offer a gift of tobacco to show respect and gratitude. Kanienkehaka also believe that creation is a continuous process that is ongoing still, and that the balance of opposite but complementary qualities is part of the world and the self, as in the twins who divide the world between them.

Kanienkehaka Settlements & Subsistence

Before the Kanienkehaka began cultivating corn, they relied on hunting, gathering, and fishing for subsistence. Women gathered wild berries, other fruits, roots, greens, and nuts. Men hunted deer, bear, and small animals, and fished. The cultivation of maize (corn), which began in the southwest, reached the northeast peoples about 500 AD, and by 1000 AD the growing of corn, beans, and squash—the "Three Sisters"—was central to Kanienkehaka existence. Because women grew these crops, they were identified with them as the source and sustainers of life.

This stable, abundant food source allowed the Kanienkehaka population to grow and create larger, more complex settlements. There were three types of communities: seasonal camps for hunting or fishing; hamlets, which were small villages near larger towns; and towns, which held up to 2,000 people. The Kanienkehaka moved their settlements every 12 to 20 years, when nearby natural resources—soil fertility, forests for firewood and bark construction, etc.—became depleted. In the 16th century, there were likely three or four large Kanienkehaka towns and several associated hamlets along the Mohawk River.


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Longhouse interior
Drawing courtesy of the New York State Museum, Albany, N.Y.

Inside the protective palisade walls, Kanienkehaka villages contained 30 to 150 distinctive bark-covered dwellings called longhouses. They were 20 to 25 feet wide, 15 to 20 feet high, and 50 to 200 feet long, depending on the number of families living inside. They were framed with upright logs set into the ground and tied with cross-poles, with a roof of saplings bent across the center and shingled with elm-bark. Inside, there was a central hall with three to five firepits down the middle and compartments on either side. The compartments were platforms raised about a foot off the ground, open to the central fire but walled off from the next compartment by bark partition walls or closets, with a storage shelf above. These were occupied by a nuclear or "fireside" family of five or six people who shared the fire with another family on the opposite side of the longhouse.

Families & Clans

Longhouses were central to the Kanienkehaka way of life and identity. Each longhouse was occupied by an extended family headed by a respected woman, usually the oldest. The longhouse family—a more important unit than the nuclear family of mother, father, and children—consisted of her descendants and relatives. All descent and inheritance passed through the female line. A Kanienkehaka woman lived all her life in the same longhouse into which she was born. A Kanienkehaka man belonged all his life to the longhouse family into which he was born (his mother's longhouse), but when he married he went to live in his wife's longhouse. So people living in a longhouse included both members of the longhouse family and husbands who married into it. Children were raised by their mother and her siblings, who helped provide guidance and discipline.

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Not everyone living in your longhouse is a member of your longhouse family. For example, your father lives in your longhouse but remains a member of his mother's longhouse family. And some members of your longhouse family (e.g., your mother's married brothers) may live elsewhere, in their wives' longhouses.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson, based on an illustration by George Armstrong in The Great Tree and the Longhouse by Hazel W. Hertzberg (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966).

Several longhouse families made up a clan, whose emblem was displayed outside the longhouse. The three Kanienkehaka clans—Turtle, Wolf, and Bear—were common to all the Iroquois nations. All members of a clan were considered relatives, so a Kanienkehaka visitor to an Onondaga village would be welcomed as family into a local clan longhouse. Also, people could not marry anyone within their clan.

Clans in turn were grouped together in two or three groups. For games, ceremonies, and condolence rituals, the clans formed two groups or "moieties" (complementary halves). Wolf and Turtle clans acted together as brothers and sisters in one moiety, playing opposing roles to that of their cousins in the Bear clan. For example, if a Wolf clan member died, Wolf and Turtle "siblings" would mourn together, while their Bear clan cousins would comfort them. When they sat in council, they remained as three groups; Wolf and Bear representatives "sat across the fire" from each other as cousins, while the Turtle clan arbitrated between the two. This pattern was repeated in the Iroquois Confederacy, in which the nations were grouped into the Younger Brothers and the Elder Brothers, and the Onondaga arbitrated between the two groups.

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Clan emblems of the three Kanienkehaka clans: Turtle, Wolf, and Bear. Copies of Iroquois pictographs from a French document circa 1666.
Reproduced in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978).

The Rotinonsionni: The Iroquois Five Nations Confederacy

Like the clan groupings, the other elements of home and village life—the longhouse, the fireside family, female lineage, and the clan—were all reflected in the great Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations (later Six Nations). The Kanienkehaka name for the confederacy, Rotinonsionni, means "People of the Longhouse" in Kanienkeha. The confederacy itself was pictured as a great longhouse with five fires stretching from east to west across the lands of the Kanienkehaka, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. The Tuscaroras joined in 1722. As the easternmost nation, the Kanienkehaka were called "Keepers of the Eastern Door," while the Senecas were the "Keepers of the Western Door" of the longhouse.

Kanienkehaka tradition tells that before the Rotinonsionni, there was much fighting among the Iroquois nations, in part because of the custom of retribution. If a man killed someone, the family of the murdered person could kill him or another member of his clan. If the murdered person was from another nation, war was the likely result. Immaculately-born Tekanawita, a Wendat, brought the Good News of Peace and Power to the Iroquois. A woman was the first to hear and accept it, so Tekanawita told her that women would possess the chiefs' titles and appoint the chiefs. Tekanawita converted Haionwatha, an Onondaga, and after consoling his grief over the death of his daughters by sharing wampum, together they created the Great Law of Peace, Kaianerekowa, represented by a Tree of Peace. The Kanienkehaka were the first nation to accept the Great Law of Peace, and helped Tekanawita and Haionwatha gain the allegiance of the other nations.

The Grand Council of the Confederacy met annually and when the need arose. Its structure echoed that of village and clan government. Each village had a council made up of male representatives chosen by the chief matron of each clan, in consultation with other women in the clan. Each nation also had a council made up of the head chiefs of each village. Clans, villages, and nations had autonomy over their own affairs. The Grand Council of the Confederacy was made up of 50 chiefs with hereditary names or titles. These titles were also kept and given by the senior woman of the clan they represented. The chiefs were divided into two groups: the Elder Brothers, the Kanienkehaka and the Seneca; and the Younger Brothers, the Oneida and the Cayuga. The Onondaga, the geographically central nation of the confederacy, were the Keepers of the Central Fire, which meant that they hosted the meetings and arbitrated the discussions. (For certain occasions like the Condolence Ceremony to pick a new chief, the Onondaga joined the Elder Brothers so that there were two moieties.) Decisions had to be arrived at by consensus, which often required long debate. The role of the Council was to preserve the Great Peace.

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Representation of the seating order of the Iroquois Confederacy council fire.
Illustration by Juliet Jacobson, based on an illustration by George Armstrong in The Great Tree and the Longhouse by Hazel W. Hertzberg (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966).

Warfare: The Tradition of Mourning Wars

The Great Law prevailed within the confederacy, but war remained an important part of Kanienkehaka culture. The Kanienkehaka made war on people with whom they did not have an alliance marked by a reciprocal trading relationship; the Wendat (Huron) were traditional enemies, as were, at times, some Wôbanakiak nations to the east. Going on the warpath was a way for young men to demonstrate their bravery and achieve status by killing enemies or, even better, by taking them captive. Captives were often seen as a way to compensate for or even replace people who had died, whether in battle or through illness. The power of a clan or village was diminished by a death, and captives could reanimate that power.

Both warfare and mourning were conducted according to ritual. The bereaved family blackened their faces and mourned for 10 days, while members of their clan's opposite moiety attempted to comfort them with funeral rituals, feasts, and gifts. Mourning lasted an entire year, in which widows and other bereaved family members neglected their appearance and did not participate in social activities. Women of the mourning household could demand a war to "raise up the tree" or replace those who had been lost. This request could be made to their father's brother's sons, or to a clan war chief.

The war chief held a council to call together a mourning war expedition, at which he spoke and sang the war song. The warriors left the village amid much ceremony, and were welcomed back with other ritually prescribed activities, such as making the captives run the gauntlet at the entrance to the village. Captives were distributed among grieving families, who decided whether to adopt or execute them. Women and children were more likely to be brought into a family than men; enemy warriors were most often tortured and killed, with the whole village participating in the ritual.

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