Before the 16th century, the members of the Five Nations Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), called the Iroquois, lived primarily by farming, commercial trade of agricultural (corn floor, tobacco) and handicraft products, and traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping and harvesting.
In the 17th century, the territory of the Confederacy, along the Saint-Lawrence River and the Mohawk River is estimated to be 35,000 km2.
Contact with Europeans in the 17th century gradually began to change the Mohawk way of life; especially with the fur trade, the use of firearms, metal, etc. At the same time, under the influence of the many Jesuits from Europe, the Mohawks were converting to Catholicism.
Skilful in the arts of war and trade, the Mohawks took part in the English-French wars who marked the beginning of the colonization in Nouvelle-France by being allies to the English forces. They progressively take the place of the Hurons in the monopole of fur trade and they will battle them fiercely.
In the middle of the 16th century, the Mohawks gradually settle in reductions near English villages and, after several moves, they settle in 1717 in what is now Kahnawake. A group of Mohawks from the village moved again, in 1721, to an Algonquin village, wich they renamed Kanesatake in 1755.
Beginning in the 19th century, the Mohawks, with their ability to brave rapids and navigate rough waters, distinguished themselves as oarsmen with several shipping companies. In 1884, they proved their mettle by leading a British expedition up the Nile to Khartoum in Sudan. Other Mohawks were hired by construction companies because of their exceptional ability to climb the highest scaffolding. In Montreal, the Mohawks helped build the Victoria Bridge in 1860. In 1889, they worked on the Quebec city bridge. On August 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed, killing 96 people including 33 Kahnawake Mohawks.
Living on both sides of the Canada-US border, the Mohawks reject the actual frontiers of Canada and the United States and will claim the right of free circulation for their people and for merchandise over the borders. Many major demonstrations will be held to support these revendications.
One of these demonstrations, with regards to land claims in the Oka village, remains a sadly well-known event in relations between the Mohawks and non-Native people in Quebec. This conflict, in wich the Canadian army and the Sûreté du Québec had to intervene in the summer of 1990, was one of the worst episodes in the history of relations between Native people and Quebecers.
Today, the Iroquois nation has more than 20,000 members in Quebec, Ontario and New York State. In Quebec, over 8,400 Mohawks live in Kahnawake, a 53 km2 territory. This dynamic community has four schools, including two high schools, a radio station, a newspaper (The Eastern Door), a hospital managed entirely by the community and a Caisse populaire with assets of over 50 million dollars.
Kanesatake has some 1,800 residents living on a 10 km2 territory, and they obtain educational and medical services in the surrounding towns. The Mohawks aspire to a great deal of control over their own affairs. Kahnawake signed a framework agreement with the federal government in December 1991 in order to negotiate greater autonomy than provided for in the Indian Act. In Kanesatake, negotiations are still under way to definitively settle this community's grievances.
The actual economy of the Mohawk communities is mainly based on public and private services businesses; the nearness of major urban centers helped the Mohawks to develop small businesses in various sectors of activities that are today flourishing.