Preserving Mohawk History

By Jacob Nelson

 

Of the nearly 320 million people that currently reside in the United States, just over five million identify as Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although it may seem like a fairly big number, five million Native Americans is a much smaller number than it should be. There is no way to determine how many people were living in the United States before Christopher Columbus first reached North America in 1492, but in an article written by Dean Snow for Science Magazine in 1995, it is estimated that there may have been anywhere from two million to nearly eighteen million indigenous people residing on American soil at the time. Assuming that there was at one point a population of eighteen million Native American people, there has been a massive drop in the population in the last 500 years. With a shrinking population, it becomes much more important that the history and culture of the native people of this country is preserved. The Native people have proven that they are resilient and can survive through the harsh conditions that they have been put through, but as time goes on and Native Americans become more absorbed in to American culture, a lot of history is lost and forgotten. The United States is called the great melting pot, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should forget where they came from. The Mohawk people of North-Eastern America have survived for hundreds of years as part of the Iroquois Confederacy. They were once known as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door”, which was a name given to them for being the tribe residing closest to the East coast. The Mohawk tribe were tasked with protecting the other tribes from any attackers that may come from across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, hundreds of years later, much of the land that was once solely occupied by Native Americans is home to millions of people that have come to the United States from all over the world. Although there are still many Native Americans living in that area, they are not capable of living the same life-style that their ancestors once were able to. Old traditions and rituals are no longer practiced to the extent that they once were, and many Native Americans have slowly been pushed in to adopting the American life-style. While it is important to adjust to be able to survive in the modern world, it is also important to remember your roots to be able to keep history alive by passing it down through the years so that it isn’t lost for future generations. The future of the Mohawk people, and all other Native American tribes, is in the hands of the people of the tribes who are alive today. The survival of the culture of an entire group of people can only be preserved as long as older generations care to learn it to pass on to their children.

In the United States, there are roughly 310 Indian reservations today. Although 310 seems like a fairly large number, there are currently over 550 recognized tribes in the United States. Nearly half of the federally recognized tribes are not given their own piece of land to live on. Not all of the reservations are equally sized, but they generally allow for the Native American people who live on them to carry out their traditional way of life to some point. There are modern adaptations to mold with the rest of society, but they are free to carry out their religious and spiritual traditions the way that their ancestors did. The Mohawk reservation is currently one of the larger reservations in the United States, with a population of 3,288 according to the 2010 census. The reservation lies along the border between the United States and Canada and is recognized as a sovereign nation. However, not all of the Mohawk people choose to live on the reservation. With nearly 28,000 people in the United States identifying as members of the Mohawk tribe, the 3,288 inhabitants of the Mohawk reservation seems much smaller in comparison. Although many of the Mohawk people do not live in the reservation simply because it is not big enough, many choose to live nearby in New York City, where there are several more opportunities to make money. In the mid-1800s, it was discovered that people from the Mohawk tribe were willing and able to work in construction for low wages, even in high-risk jobs. Ever since, it has become common for Mohawk people to work in construction, both in and around New York. They generally work on larger projects such as skyscrapers. According to Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais, a Mohawk construction worker, “A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better… There’s pride in ‘walking iron’.” What once was started as an easy way to make money with little education and no prior experience has become a very common employment for the people of the Mohawk tribe. Residing so close to New York City presents several opportunities for construction work, resulting in a seemingly never-ending line of work.  One of the advantages that the Mohawk people have in the construction business in New York is that it is very close to the land that the Mohawk people have lived on for hundreds of years, meaning that they are able to retain a close relationship with the rest of their tribe. While living in such close proximity with the majority of their people, more of the traditional customs of the Mohawk people are able to be preserved than they would had they been spread all over the country.

Though the Mohawk people have their own religion which is based on conflicting good and evil, it has been changed slightly since the first European settlers arrived. There is a Christian influence on it that stems from a hybrid religion created by a Seneca prophet who visited the Mohawk people. The new religion that was brought to the Mohawk people was called “Longhouse”, and it was very similar to Quaker Christianity. After the Longhouse religion had been spread through the tribe, and the seeds of Christianity were planted in the minds of all of its followers, Christianity grew more popular. The religion that is practiced by the majority of Mohawk people today is a combination of the original Mohawk belief of good vs. evil mixed with several Christian fundamentals. Although change is bound to happen over the course of nearly 500 years, I found it interesting that the Mohawk people kept the fundamental beliefs of their original religion and combined them with the parts of Christianity that they found were improvements to the ideas that they already had. Instead of a Christian take-over of the religious beliefs of an entire people, the Mohawk people were able to combine the two different ideas and take the best parts of both of them to create a new religion that encompassed all of the aspects of their lives that they wanted it to. Encompassing new ideas to add to those that already exist is the key to peaceful relations among different peoples. Had the Mohawk not embraced Christianity, there may have been conflicts that resulted in a loss of lives on both sides, which could potentially have meant that more Mohawk culture would be lost.

Although the preservation of Mohawk culture lies mostly in the willingness of Mohawk people to pass down their ancestor’s ways to future generations, it is also important for others to learn about the Mohawk tribe. Allowing an entire culture to be slowly erased from history as a tribe of people get absorbed in to modern culture is the same as eradicating the entire tribe. The Mohawk should be recognized as an individual tribe, with its own values, religion, language, and traditions, rather than being lumped in to the category of “Native American”. There are several hundred Native American tribes, and they all deserve to have their stories preserved for future generations to learn about them. The original inhabitants of North America should never be forgotten, for when they have, it is almost as if they never existed. The different cultures and religions of the tribes of indigenous people should remain intact so that they are not swept under the rug beneath the major groups residing in the United States today.

 

Notes

O'Neil, Shannon. "Religious Customs of Mohawk Native Americans." The Classroom. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://classroom.synonym.com/religious-customs-mohawk-native-americans-9129.html.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Native American religions", accessed December 11, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/664229/Native-American-religions/242872/Forms-of-religious-authority.

"Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service - Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York." Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service - Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/archived_exhibitions/booming/main.htm.

Koppisch, John. "Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? A Look At The Bottom 1%." Forbes. December 23, 2011. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoppisch/2011/12/13/why-are-indian-reservations-so-poor-a-look-at-the-bottom-1/.

Daining, Crystal. "Mohawk Tribe: History, Fact, Culture." Education Portal. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://education-portal.com/academy/lesson/mohawk-tribe-history-facts-culture.html.

Robles, John. "The Mohawk: Keepers of the Eastern Door of Great Turtle Island - Interview." Sputnik News. May 13, 2013. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://sputniknews.com/voiceofrussia/2013_05_26/The-Mohawk-Keepers-of-the-Eastern-Door-of-Great-Turtle-Island-interview/.

Robles, John. "Canada Is in Fact a Corporation – Mohawk Indian Elder." Sputnik News. June 7, 2013. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://sputniknews.com/voiceofrussia/2013_06_07/Canada-is-in-fact-a-corporation-Mohawk-Indian-elder-7758/.

Snow, Dean R. "Microchronology and Demographic Evidence Relating to the Size of Pre-Columbian North American Indian Populations." Science, June 16, 1995.

"American Indians By The Numbers." Infoplease. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/aihmcensus1.html.

Preserving Mohawk History