John Mohawk, Iroquois leader and scholar, dead at 61

John Mohawk, a leading scholar and spokesman for the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), died at his home in Buffalo, NY, on Dec. 12. Mohawk was an international voice for the soveriegn and territorial rights of the Iroquois Confederacy, a functioning system of government that predates the founding of the United States by some 600 years, and for the cultural survival of indigenous peoples worldwide.

With one foot in the world of academia and another in the traditional lifeways of his Seneca people, Dr. Mohawk (also known by his Seneca name of Sotsisowah) was director of Indigenous Studies at the Center for the Americas, New York State University at Buffalo. He was also founder and director of the Iroquois White Corn Project, an effort to preserve traditional seedstock and agricultural methods on the Cattaraugus Territory of the Seneca Nation in western New York state.

From its founding in 1967 to 1983, Mohawk served as editor for Akwesasne Notes, a journal published at the Mohawk reservation of that name straddling the St. Lawrence River, a groundbreaking effort in the emergence of an independent Native American press. In 1978 he was contributing editor to A Basic Basic Call to Consciousness, a germinal document prepared by the Iroquois Confederacy for a conference at Geneva, Switzerland, demanding establishment of international law standards for the rights of indigenous peoples.

Mohawk served as a spokesperson and negotiator in several land conflicts concering the Iroquois nations, including Ganienkeh (1975) and Racquette Point (1981) in upstate New York, and Oka, Quebec (1990). He represented Akwesasne Notes on a fact-finding trip to Iran during the US embassy hostage crisis in 1980. He was a also founding board member of the Seventh Generation Fund, the Indian Law Resource Center and Prophecy and Survival, dedicated to bringing indigenous perspectives to the question of global climate change.

Mohawk’s online biography at Indian Country Today (published at the Oneida Nation, another Confederacy member), where he served as a columnist, notes that he was author of dozens of newspaper and magazine articles and received the Native American Journalists Association “Best Historical Perspective of Indigenous People Award” in 2000 and 2001. His latest book was Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World, an exploration of the paradoxical unity of utopianism and genocide from the European conquest of the Americas through World War II and Vietnam.

In a Dec. 15 obituary for Indian Country Today, Mohawk’s long-time friend and collaborator José Barreiro, now of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, writes: “Intensely steeped in the spiritual ceremonial traditions of the Haudenosaunee people through his foundational longhouse culture at the Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York, Mohawk was one of those rare American Indian individuals who comfortably stepped out into the Western academic and journalistic arenas. He was an enthusiastic participant in his own traditional ways, a legendary singer and knowledgeable elder of the most profound ceremonial cycles of the Haudenosaunee. As a scholar, he represented the Native traditional school of thought in a way that was as authentic as it was brilliantly modern and universal.”

The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle obituary notes that Mohawk’s wife, Yvonne Dion-Buffalo, died in 2005. He is survived by a son, a stepson and a stepdaughter.

See our last posts on Native America and the Iroquois.