Religious Customs of Mohawk Native Americans

Religious Customs of Mohawk Native Americans

Mohawk Native Americans are an Iroquois people with origins in Ontario, Quebec and New York State. They belong to the Six Nations, formerly known as the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They call themselves the Kahniakehaka or People of the Flint. Because of European influence, which began as early as the 1500s, Mohawk spirituality is an intermingling of native beliefs and Christianity. Mohawks have kept many of their traditional religious customs, which reflect a spiritual reverence for the natural world.

1 Indigenous Beliefs

Traditional Mohawk religious beliefs have been influenced by Christianity, but certain key principles remain intact. Mohawk religion is based on the conflict between good and evil. The Mohawk creation story features a woman giving birth to twins who represent these opposing forces. Teharonhiawako or Holder of the Heavens is the good twin, while Sawiskera or Mischievous One is the evil twin. As in many Native American cultures, shamanism plays an important role in Mohawk religion. Among the duties of a Mohawk shaman is the interpretation of dreams and visions, which Mohawks believe are direct messages from the spiritual world.

2 Christianity

Beginning in the 1500s, the Six Nations people were heavily influenced by Christianity brought by European missionaries and other settlers. In the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries from France persuaded many Mohawks to relocate from the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers to Catholic settlements along Quebec's St. Lawrence River. A century later, Quakers from England began settling peacefully among the Seneca people, helping them grow corn crops. Handsome Lake, a Seneca prophet, became deeply inspired by Quaker beliefs and in turn disseminated a hybrid faith to the Mohawks, known as the Longhouse Religion.

3 Longhouse Religion

The Longhouse Religion is based on the visions and revelations of Handsome Lake. Between 1799 and 1804 he had a series of visions, collectively known as the Good Message. The visions consisted of visitations by spirits who encouraged Handsome Lake to free his people from European domination through temperance and a return to traditional ways. Influenced by Quaker Christianity, the Good Message denounced alcohol, witchcraft and abortion, which were perceived as threats to the community's survival. After Handsome Lake's death, the Longhouse Religion lost favor among the Six Nations people, while Christianity grew in popularity.

4 Ceremonies, Festivals and Dances

Traditional Mohawk culture emphasizes a profound love of nature. The most important ceremonies, festivals and dances follow the cyclical calendar of the seasons. Starting in winter with the Midwinter Festival, celebrations continue throughout the year and include the Feast for the Dead, Maple Festival, Thunder Dance, Medicine & Seed Festival, Harvest Festival and the End of Season Feast. In addition, there are sacred ceremonies such as the Great Feather Dance, Men’s Personal Thanksgiving, Drum Dance and Bowl Game. For the Mohawk people, these rituals are spiritual expressions of gratitude and respect for the natural world.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.