by Doug George-Kanentiio
When I was growing up on Akwesasne Mohawk Territory there were social habits which reflected an historical response to the devastating communicable diseases which came close to wiping out our ancestors.
Beginning in the early 17th century illnesses such as smallpox and influenza struck the Iroquois hard. As with the Native nations along the Atlantic coast European borne viruses caused the death of millions of people. The European colonial powers had tried in vain throughout the 1500’s to establish settlements on the eastern shores of North American only to be met with resistance by indigenous nations in a region noted as being extensively populated. Not until the first decades of the following century, when the great plagues brought death to a vast majority of Natives, were the Europeans able to establish their settlements. This trend continued for the next 400 years and was the greatest factor in enabling the colonists to assume physical control of the continent from its aboriginal inhabitants.
It was not European technology, theology or national will nor was it guns or military strength but those types of viruses against which the Natives, including our Mohawk ancestors, had no natural immunity. From being a society in which physical contact was a constant given the communal longhouses and the rituals and customs which stressed social activities such as dancing, music, the sharing of food and collective labor having to adapt to behaviors meant to reduce contact had brutal and long-lasting effects on the Mohawks.
This was reflected in the way people responded to others which I noticed as a child was detached and cautious. At Akwesasne the last epidemic took place in the late 1890’s when an outbreak of cholera killed hundreds. I had been reviewing our census data and noted that for most of the 1800’s the population of Akwesasne remained fairly constant at just over 3,000. This did not increase at any great rate until after WWI when there was a noticeable increase in the birth rate and a decline in mortality. The current population on the territory is now over 15,000 and will double within the next generation.
This rate of recovery is remarkable and has many factors but the most important was the ability of the Mohawk people to finally develop partial immunity from those illnesses which had nearly brought about extinction. Still, there were those familial and personal habits which were peculiar and seen by our non-Native neighbors as anti-social. As an example, our Mohawk ancestors did not embrace each other. They did not like to be touched and had a strong, hostile reaction to those who tried to envelop us. They avoided eye contact, were hesitant to shake hands, coughed away from another person, kept meticulously clean homes and were said to be very shy around strangers.
I asked the late Salli Benedict, Akwesasne’s most knowledgeable historian, why. She said it was in response to diseases such as smallpox, measles, cholera, typhoid and influenza. The people learned, as a matter of survival, to keep their distance and refrain from contact. Those who did not understand why attributed our behavior as odd and condemned it as such but it was a rational response to becoming infected.
I looked further into how viruses changed the Iroquois. In a Phd dissertation written for Pennsylvania State University in 2008 by Eric E. Jones, the soon to be doctor of anthropology, summarized the research done by scholars who studied the population of the Iroquois from pre-contact to the 19th century. His essay is entitled “Iroquois Population History and Settlement Ecology 1550-1700.” His conclusions substantiate the oral traditions of the Mohawks.
Dr. Jones based his analysis on the physical remnants of the communal longhouses and the number of families living within each one of these elongated buildings, some of which were over 100 meters in length. He concluded that the Mohawks numbered 8,025 people in their communities in central New York State. He counted those Mohawks who lived along the St. Lawrence River or the Lake Champlain region. Dr. Jones set the entire Iroquois Confederacy population at an apex of 22,000.
By the 1660’s the Mohawks had lost over 78% of the people and were reduced to 1,140 individuals. Extinction was imminent.
How did the Mohawks survive? By doing the opposite of current international policies. The Mohawks began an aggressive immigration campaign to bring other Natives to our territory to replace those who had died. The Mohawks made land available to refugees. They reorganized their economic policies to provide for the flow of goods across Iroquois territory and they adopted, in part, the customs of the immigrants to make the transition easier. Greater emphasis was placed on diplomacy to reduce international tensions while the Mohawk Valley homelands were left behind to re-establish communities far from the disease areas resulting in the current territories of Kahnawake, Kanesatake and Akwesasne.
Any nation which loses 3/4ths of its people is certain to experience profound psychological, physical and social stress. The Mohawk response was not to turn inwards but to attack the disease by expanding its approaches and becoming more inclusive. With regards to the coronavirus these insights may be of value in the recovery stage as the world emerges from this current pandemic.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via email at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.