Perhaps one of the most known Native American tribes (for a hairstyle alone) are the Mohawks. Inasmuch as the look of warriors going into battle with the sides of their heads shaved is a distinction, there are many other interesting tidbits about the Mohawks that set them apart from other tribes on Turtle Island.
Many thanks are due public information officer Aimee Benedict and tribal historian Arnold Printup at the St. Regis Mohawk nation for making themselves available to answers questions about Mohawks. It’s because of their contributions that we at ICTMN were able to compile these 11 essential facts about the Mohawk people.
Mohawk Warriors and those cool haircuts. To address the namesake of the Mohawk people first, it goes without saying that we should recognize the haircuts of the warriors preparing to go into battle. Tradition dictated that Mohawk warriors cut the sides of their heads leaving only a strip of hair over the top of the head, universally recognized today as a ‘Mohawk.’ This style is also called the scalplock.
What history doesn’t say however is that this was NOT the only style of hair and as in any culture, styles varied. Many warriors did cut their hair, but in various ways such as cut on one side, in front and more. According to Arnold Printup, who himself sports a scalplock, “Our ancestors wore several styles to their liking. According to our oral traditions one historian said there was a warrior who also had a strip down the middle shaved out. The majority shaved our heads in some way. We valued the length of hair for its strength, spirituality and power.”
Warriors shaved heads to protect women and children. Mohawk tribal historian Printup also says at a time when scalps were desired by settlers for bounty, Mohawk warriors decided to cut their hair in various ways to make their scalps more desirable to bounty hunters. “It was an in your face bold move as if to dare bounty hunters to seek their scalps. It was a distinction and a way to protect women and children.”
To throw a bit more confusion into the fire, Mohawk author and historian Darren Bonaparte says Mohawk isn’t a Mohawk word, because “M isn’t one of our letters.” Bonaparte says the hairstyle was originally Huron, yet old movies and Mohawk warrior paratroopers shaving their heads on D-Day inspired the namesake attached to the haircut.
Been in a NYC skyscraper? Thank a Mohawk. The St. Regis Mohawk tribe is the place to be for the annual ironworker’s festival—for good reason. Ironworkers of the Local 440 have been contributing to the New York landscape for generations on such structures as the twin towers, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State building. The Mohawk ironworkers span six generations building America’s skyscrapers for 120 years.
Native newspaper? Yeah they had one of the first. Before ICMN, there was the Akwesasne Notes. Covering Native issues in its day, such as the AIM Movement of the 1970s, the pub had over 150,000 subscribers and no advertisers. Ernest Benedict started the publication in the late 1950s. Akwesasne Notes was the first and longest running national publication in New York started by Native Americans featuring Native issues. Of course other Native publications included the The Progress (White Earth) in 1886, and the Phoenix (Cherokee.)
A Tribal Saint? Got that, too. The Blessed St. Kateri Tekahkwitha was canonized by the Catholic Church on October 21, 2012. Pope Benedict, who attended the Canonization at the Vatican and a dedication of a Kateri statue in a Santa Fe, New Mexico Cathedral, declared that St. Kateri belongs to ALL Natives.
He’s played with the best, and he’s one of the best. Six Nations guitarist Robbie Robertson is one of the foremost and celebrated guitarists today, and his mother was from Ohswe:ken (Six Nations). Robertson has been playing for years and still rocks the world today. We also think Derek Miller (another guitar-playing Mohawk) deserves a shout out.
Straddling the invisible border. When looking at a map, it is easy to discern that the Akwesasne Reserve sits right on the U.S. and Canadian border. To be specific, The Mohawk community of Akwesasne is intersected by the jurisdictions of two federal governments, two provincial governments and one U.S. state.
The Saint Regis Mohawk Territory is located in Northern New York State approximately 80 miles northeast of Lake Ontario and 60 miles southwest of Montreal, Quebec. The lands are cross-sectioned by the United States and Canadian border and subdivided by Franklin County in New York and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service is the only First Nations police force to have a quad-partite policing agreement with Canada, Ontario, Quebec and Akwesasne.
Healing a Pope. When Pope John Paul II visited Midland Ontario in 1984, the Mohawk people performed a healing ceremony on him.
Another First. Agreeing to accept the message of the Peacemaker, the Mohawk people were the first to become part of the Iroquois Confederacy. They are the Keepers of the Eastern Door.
Warriors First Encounter Guns. According to the Communications Unit and Aboriginal Rights & Research Office/Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the Mohawk people were first exposed to guns in a battle that took place in 1609 with Samuel de Champlain along the shore of modern-day Lake Champlain.
Also worth mentioning is that the Mohawk also encountered documented French explorer Count de Frontenace in 1673 at the mouth of the St. Lawrence and Raquette Rivers.
The three-government way. The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Government organizational structure consists of 10 elected officials. There are three Chiefs, three Sub-Chiefs, a Tribal Clerk, a Chief Judge and two Traffic Court Judges. Tribal elections are held each year on the first Saturday of June to choose one Chief and one Sub-Chief for a three-year term. The Tribal Clerk and Judges are on the ballot every third year. The Tribal Council is the official representative of the Mohawk People to New York State and the federal agencies who in turn deal exclusively with the Tribal Council Chiefs in a government and public affairs. There is also a traditionally appointed Council of Chiefs.
This story was originally published December 11, 2015.