Kanienkehaka means "people of the flint."

Mohawk Tribe
19th-century Mohawk family
Iroquois dancer today
How do you pronounce the word "Mohawk"? What does it mean?
Mohawk is pronounced "mo-hawk." It comes from a name their Algonkian enemies used to call them,
meaning "man-eaters." In their own language, the Mohawk people call themselves Kanienkehaka, which
means "people of the flint."
Were they really man-eaters?
It's not clear anymore whether that name was supposed to be literal, or an insult, or just a figure of speech to
show that the Mohawks were fierce. Some Mohawk people believe that in ancient times, before they joined
the Iroquois Confederacy, their ancestors used to eat enemies they had killed in battle. Other Mohawks think
that never really happened and cannibals were always rare and strange in Mohawk society, like they were in
other cultures.
Where do the Mohawks live?
The Mohawks are original people of New York state. Here is our map of New York Indian tribes and the
location of their original home lands. Some Mohawk people still live in New York today, but most Mohawks
retreated to Canada in the 1700's.
Are the Mohawks Iroquois people?
Yes, the Mohawk Indian tribe was one of the original members of the Iroquois
Confederation, or Kanonsionni in their own language ("people of the longhouse.") The
other member nations were the the Seneca, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Onondaga.
Later a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the confederacy. Today these long-term allies
refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations.
Iroquois wampum belt
How is the Mohawk Indian nation organized?
The Mohawk nation had a tribal council chosen by the Mohawk clan mothers (matriarchs, or female
leaders.) But the Mohawks were also subject to the decisions made by the Iroquois Great Council. Nine
Mohawk chiefs represented their tribe's interests in the Iroquois Council. This is similar to American states
which each have their own government, but are all subject to the US government. In fact, the Iroquois
Confederacy was one of the examples of representative democracy used as a model by America's founding
Today the Mohawk people have four First Nations in what is now Ontario and Quebec, including one
reservation with land on both sides of the Canada-US border. Each of these Mohawk tribes is autonomous,
which means the Indians who live there have the right to make their own government and laws. There are
also other Mohawk communities in New York and Quebec, and some Mohawk people live on the Six
Nations Reserve, which they share with members of the other Iroquois nations.
What language do the Mohawks speak?
Most Mohawk people speak English today, but some Mohawks also speak their native Mohawk language.
Mohawk is a complex language with many sounds that are unlike the sounds in English. If you'd like to know
a few easy Mohawk words, "she:kon" (pronounced similar to shay-cone) is a friendly greeting, and "nia:wen"
(pronounced similar to nee-ah-wenh) means 'thank you.' You can also read a Mohawk picture glossary here
and listen to the spoken language here.
What was Mohawk culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here is the home page of the Mohawk Tribe of Kahnawake, where you can find
information about the Mohawk lifestyle past and present.
Mohawk flag
How do Mohawk Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around
the house. Many Mohawk children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past,
Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But
Mohawk children did have toys and games. Mohawk girls liked to play with cornhusk dolls,
and boys played a game where they tried to throw a dart through a moving hoop. Lacrosse was
also a popular sport among Mohawk boys as it was among adult men. Like many Native
Americans, Mohawk mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs.
Here is a website with pictures of cradleboards and other Native baby carriers.
Mohawk doll
What were men and women's roles in the Mohawk tribe?
Mohawk men were in charge of hunting, trading, and war. Mohawk women were in charge of farming,
property, and family. These different roles were reflected in Mohawk government. Mohawk clans were
always ruled by women, who made all the land and resource decisions for each clan. But Mohawk chiefs,
who made military decisions and trade agreements, were always men. Only men represented the Mohawks
at the Iroquois Great Council, but only women voted to determine who the Mohawk representatives would
be. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.
What were Mohawk homes like in the past?
The Mohawk people lived in villages of longhouses, which were
large wood-frame buildings covered with sheets of elm bark. One
Mohawk house could be a hundred feet long, and an entire clan
lived in it--up to 60 people! Here are some pictures of Iroquois
longhouses like the ones Mohawk Indians used, and a drawing of
what a long house looked like on the inside. Here is a photograph
of an Iroquois longhouse, and here is a picture of what a
longhouse looked like on the inside. Today, longhouses are only
used for ceremonial purposes. The Mohawks live in modern
Iroquois longhouse sketch
houses and apartment buildings, just like you.
What was Mohawk clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Mohawk men wore breechcloths with leggings. Mohawk women wore
wraparound skirts with shorter leggings. Men did not originally wear shirts in
Mohawk culture, but women often wore a poncho-like tunic called an
overdress. Mohawk Indians usually wore moccasins on their feet. In colonial
times, the Mohawks adapted European costume like cloth shirts and blouses,
decorating them with beadwork and ribbon applique. Here is a webpage about
traditional Iroquois dress, and some photographs and links about American
Indian clothes in general.
Mohawk traditional clothing
The Mohawks didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Mohawk men
wore traditional Iroquois headdresses, which are feathered caps with a
different insignia for each tribe. (The Mohawk headdress has three eagle
feathers on top.) Mohawk women sometimes wore special beaded tiaras. In
times of war, Mohawk men shaved their heads except for a scalplock or a
crest down the center of their head--the hairstyle known as a roach or a
"Mohawk." Sometimes they augmented this haircut with splayed feathers or
artificial roaches made of brightly dyed porcupine and deer hair. Here are
some pictures of these different kinds of Indian headdresses. Mohawk women
only cut their hair when they were in mourning. Otherwise they wore their
hair long and loose or plaited into a long braid. Here is a website with pictures
of Indian women's hair. Men sometimes decorated their faces and bodies with
tattoo art, but Mohawk women generally didn't paint or tattoo themselves.
Today, some Mohawk people still wear moccasins or a beaded shirt, but they
wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear
feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.
Mohawk Indian moccasins
What was Mohawk transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, there were two types of Mohawk canoes. A canoe made from elm bark was light and
fast. A dugout canoe, made from hollowed-out logs, was long and could carry many people.
Here is a website with pictures of different Native American canoe types. Over land, the
Mohawks used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists
brought them over from Europe.) During the winter the Mohawks used sleds and laced
snowshoes to travel through the snow.
Iroquois snowshoes
What was Mohawk food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Mohawk Indians were farming people. Mohawk women planted crops of corn, beans,
and squash and harvested wild berries and herbs. Mohawk men hunted for deer and elk and
fished in the rivers. Traditional Mohawk foods included cornbread, soups, and stews,
which they cooked on stone hearths. Here is a website with more information about Native
American food sources.
Iroquois farmers
What were Mohawk weapons, tools, and artifacts like in the past?
Mohawk hunters used bows and arrows. Mohawk fishermen used spears and fishing
poles. In war, Mohawk men used their bows and arrows or fought with clubs, spears
and shields. Here is a website with photos of Native American weapons.
Other important tools used by the Mohawks included stone adzes (hand axes for
woodworking), flint knives for skinning animals, and wooden hoes for farming. The
Mohawks and other Iroquois were skilled woodworkers, steaming wood so that it
could be bent to make curved tools. Some Iroquois artisans still make lacrosse sticks
this way today.
Iroquois war club
What are Mohawk arts and crafts like?
The Mohawk and other Iroquois tribes were known for their mask carving, which is
considered such a sacred art form that outsiders are still not permitted to view many of these
masks. Iroquois beadwork and the more demanding porcupine quillwork are more common
Mohawk crafts. The Mohawks also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads.
Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency, but they were more culturally important as
an art material. The designs and pictures on wampum belts often told a story or represented a
person's family.
Iroquois beadwork
What was Mohawk music like?
The two most important Mohawk instruments are drums and flutes. Iroquois drums were
often filled with water to give them a distinctive sound different from the drums of other
tribes. Most Mohawk music is very rhythmic and consists mostly of drumming and lively
singing. Flutes were used to woo women in the Mohawk tribe. A young Mohawk man
would play beautiful flute music outside his girlfriend's longhouse at night to show her he
was thinking about her.
Iroquois water drum
What other Native Americans did the Mohawk tribe interact with?
The most important neighbors of the Mohawk tribe were the other Iroquois nations: the Seneca, Onondaga,
Oneida, and Cayuga. Before the Iroquois Confederacy the Mohawks sometimes fought with the other
Iroquois tribes, but once the alliance was formed they were loyal to each other. The Mohawks were fierce
warriors who fought wars with the other eastern tribes, particularly the Wabanaki tribes, the Algonquin and
Ojibway, and the Mohican bands. The Mohawks also traded with their neighbors, exchanging corn and
woodcrafts for furs and quahog shells.
What kinds of stories do the Mohawks tell?
There are lots of traditional Mohawk legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Mohawk
Indian culture. Here is a Mohawk story about the origin of the Rabbit Dance. Here's a website where you can
read more about Iroquois Indian legends.
What about Mohawk religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple
sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about
Iroquois beliefs or this site about Native beliefs in general.