The Migration from the Mohawk Valley to Kahnawake and Akwesasne

From the Land of Flint to the Land Where the Partridge Drums The Migration from the Mohawk Valley to Kahnawake and Akwesasne

by Darren Bonaparte

The Mohawks used this area in ancient times for both permanent and seasonal occupation. It was rich in game and fish and often served as a trading center of tribes such as the Algonquins, the Hurons, and other Iroquoian groups. Burial sites have been found in the region dating back at least as far as 5,000 years. It would not be difficult for Mohawks from their settlements in the Mohawk Valley (northwest of present-day Albany, New York) to travel northward along the numerous rivers, lakes, and streams in the Adirondacks to reach the mighty: St. Lawrence. This region was the northern frontier of their vast territory.

It is said that long before the Europeans came to America the Mohawks were visited by a Huron prophet known as the Peacemaker. He was born of a virgin mother in a village known to us as Kahanayenh, said to have been located in the area of the Bay of Quinte near Kingston, Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The legend holds that upon adulthood the Peacemaker carved a canoe out of stone and paddled it across Lake Ontario, then traveled up the Oswego River to reach the territory of the Mohawks. With the help of an Onondaga chief named Ayonwatha, the Peacemaker forged a great union among the nations of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca that would come to be known to the Europeans as the League of the Iroquois, or the Five Nations Confederacy. The members of this league, naturally, had a name for it in our own language: Haudenosaunee.

Haudenosaunee means “People Of The Longhouse.” It refers not only to their customary dwellings of curved branches and bark that reached hundreds of feet long, but to the geographical makeup of their territories. The Seneca were located south of Lake Ontario and came to be known as the “Keepers Of The Western Door.” According to Confederacy protocol, visiting nations from the west could only approach the Haudenosaunee through the Seneca, said to have been the largest of the Five Nations. East of them were the Cayuga, the “People Of The Big Pipe.” Some refer to the Cayuga as the “People Of The Mucky (or Swamp) Lands.” In the center were the Onondaga, whose main village was located near present-day Syracuse, New York. They were known as the “People Of The Place On The Big Hill” and “Keepers Of The Fire” because it was in their territory that most of the Haudenosaunee Grand Councils were held. East of the Onondaga were the Oneida, or “Standing Stone People,” also known as “People Of The Big Log.” At the far east end of this longhouse of nations were the Mohawk, regarded as the “Keepers Of The Eastern Door.” The Tuscarora, admitted to the Confederacy in 1722, in some cases were designated “Those Of The Indian Hemp.” The Confederacy became known from then on as the Six Nations.

The Great Law Peace, or Kaianerekowa (literally, “The Great Good”) brought peace to a people ravaged by internecine warfare and blood feuds. The Peacemaker was believed to be a messenger sent from the Great Spirit; he buried all of the weapons of war beneath a symbolic “Tree of Peace” whose four symbolic white roots would one day spread to all the regions of the earth as an invitation for all to take shelter under its branches. For centuries, this union based on peaceful coexistence made the Haudenosaunee one of the strongest groups in the entire continent of North America. The success of such a union encouraged other groups to copy the Haudenosaunee model of confederation, and contact between these confederacies was promoted when possible. Artifacts found in burial mounds attest to the vast trading networks of the pre-contact cultures of the Northeast Woodlands.

The Mohawks in the Colonial Wars

With the advent of European colonists came drastic changes for the Haudenosaunee. Dutch, English, and French fur traders sparked a violent competition among the Haudenosaunee and their Algonquin and Huron neighbors. With the introduction of firearms, these nations suddenly saw the balance of power shift to those that had the closest ties to the Europeans. Traditional hunting grounds became exhausted by overhunting and a dependency developed for the European goods made of steel. The strength of unity which had saved the Haudenosaunee from self-destruction generations before suddenly became a source of strength in conquest. In a series of conflicts known as the Iroquois Wars, the Haudenosaunee conquered and absorbed entire nations, earning them a reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

Much has been written about these dark times in Haudenosaunee history, and almost all of it stresses the cruelty and violence with which our ancestors fought their battles. The non-natives authors rarely point out that the European powers were hardly innocent of this type of behavior themselves. In fact, they promoted the annihilation of native nations that traded with their competitors, and directed (and often participated in) the torture of their enemies. (Colden 1958:121- 123) When natives took up the hatchet, it was only after peaceful means of settling differences had been exhausted, and their tactics were more for self-preservation than anything else. It is only logical that an enemy will tend to keep his distance if he believes you are capable of the most horrible atrocities.

One must keep in mind, however, that the documentation that has been preserved from this era reflects only the point of view of the European explorers, fur traders, missionaries, military officers and colonial administrators who recorded it. They may have painted our ancestors in the worst possible light to justify their own questionable actions on the New World frontier. Even today, textbooks provided to schoolchildren are often little more than thinly-disguised pieces of propaganda which minimize the more negative aspects of North American history and trivialize native customs and belief systems. Students are thus deprived of the knowledge of the many native contributions to modern society and ultimately robbed of an honest understanding of our key role in American and Canadian history.

During the entire colonial war period, which encompassed most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy held such power and influence that one modern historian refers to it as the “Anvil of America.” (Brandon 1987:184- 211) When colonial powers could not destroy the Haudenosaunee through warfare, they sought to win them over as allies. And strong allies they were. Had the relationship between colonial powers and Haudenosaunee been different, it is possible that the Americas would be populated by a French-speaking people today. The influences of the Haudenosaunee were that critical.

By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of  The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.

Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Next week: The Mohawk Migration to the Village of Prayer.