A Guide to the Mohawk Nation Sacred Wedding Ceremony
Smiles the earth, and smile the waters,
Smile the cloudless skies above us,
But I lose the way of smiling
When thou art no longer near me!— Song of Hiawatha: XI. Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Wedding Wheel
A wedding wheel is hung at the site of many Iroquois weddings, including those of Mohawk people. The first thing to be seen when coming to the wedding, the ornamental wheel is a symbol of the couple's hopes and dreams for a happy future in marriage.
The wheel is traditionally handmade of a wooden branch, bent and decorated with white deerskin strips and often having a "burnt feather" design, recalling the Feather Dance performed after the marriage ceremony, as discussed later. The burnt aspect is represented by dark-tipped features that may stand for burnt sacrifices or the tradition of smudging the air with burning herbs for cleansing and good fortune.
When children are born to the married couple, dream catchers are made for each child and hung above each youngster's bed. There, they catch bad dreams and allow good dreams to come through to each sleeping child. Each morning, mother and child go to the front door and shake out the bad dreams from the catcher.
The Essence of Marriage
Mohawk Marriage Means "Never Alone Again"
Any traditional Native American wedding reflects the couple's spirituality and beliefs. Traditional Mohawk marriage ceremonies mark the entrance of the couple into a combined extended family of the bride and groom, and further, into the larger community of the native band or village. Forever after, the married man and woman are contributing members in a large caring group, so they are never alone again: They have their nuclear family, an extended family, and the community as a large family under the governance of the Council of Chiefs. They are also expected not to divorce.
The Longhouse Sacred Ceremony
A traditional ceremony often follows the rites of the Longhouse Religion, or Code of Handsome Lake, observed by the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, which incorporates ancient religious beliefs and some tenements of Christianity. The latter include beliefs and customs of Catholics, Quakers, Methodists, and even Charismatics who have interacted with Native North Americans in recent centuries. While some native bands have discarded the ancient beliefs, at least 5,000 people still follow the Longhouse Religion, according to the US Department of the Interior in 2015.
Ground Rules of the Ceremony
No drug, substance, or alcohol is allowed in the Longhouse during the wedding and the following marriage supper, and no photos may be taken during the ceremony. This is because the marriage ceremony is sacred and people remember it by holding it in their hearts. They will speak of it and tell stories about it to their children and grandchildren. The children will act it out after hearing about it.
- Parker, Arthur C. "The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet" in New York State Museum Bulletin 1913, as discussed in New York State Education Department Bulletin (163: November 1, 1912).
The Council of Chiefs Approves
The Couple Gains Approval to Marry
The Mohawk Nation is divided into three clans and the members of each clan are more closely related to others in their own clan than to members in either of the other two clans.
Overall, Mohawk people are considered to be related to all other Mohawks; marrying a member of another clan provides a greater genetic diversity than does inbreeding within a clan. For official approval by the Council of Chiefs, the bride and groom must be of different clans among the Turtle, Wolf, and Bear groups, each named for its founding member, who was an animal that could become a man and move back and forth between these two forms.
The groom will go to live with his wife's family after the marriage ceremony is completed.
Among the three clans of the largest Mohawk group, the Kanienkehaka, the Turtle clan is the oldest and Grandmother Turtle is said to have formed Earth by diving into the waters covering a mud ball at the beginning of Creation to bring up a chunk of mud that expanded to become the continents. The Bear group has the largest number of members.
The Council of Chiefs is the tribal group's governing body over eight communities or bands in North America. The council approves marriages and supports them if approved.
The Haudenosaunee or Iroquios Confederacy recognizes the council as the federal government of Mohawks known as the People of the Flint, who are headquartered on the St. Regis Indian Reservation. Tribal lands extend into Upstate New York to parts of Quebec and Ontario and parts of Vermont and Massachusetts. Marriage ceremonies can vary somewhat according to local cultures among states and provinces.
The eight communities of the tribe include:
- Ahkwesahsne (St. Regis): New York, Ontario, and Quebec
- Ganienke: New York
- Kanatsiohareke: New York
- Kanienkehaka: This is the largest community, located in Quebec and Ontario, including on the Six Nations Reserve. Ohsweken is the Six Nations or Grand River group in Ontario that also includes some Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora people.
- Tyendinaga and Wahta: Ontario
- Kanesatake and Kahnawake: Quebec
For the groom's gift, the bride sews and embroiders new white deer skins into moccasins. Her materials include decorations made from rabbit pelts, sinews, and beads that are either commercially purchased or made of bone. Embroidery is done with hand dyed fibers and porcupine quills made be used for quilling decorations.
The bride's and groom's families create a wedding dress for the woman, often made of white doe skin leather. Various tribal groups also add leather fringes, beads, feathers, ermine fur, and other decorations. The groom usually receives a new handmade shirt and breeches of doe skin as well.
Parents Support the Marriage
The Commitment of Four on a Bench
A couple wishing to marry presents a wedding request to the Council of Chiefs, who approve it and help to choose a wedding date. The accepted date is announced to the whole community and an invitation is extended to everyone, with no one being left out. Friends, associates, and family that live elsewhere are also invited for celebration and support.
On the wedding day in the longhouse, the couple and their families dress in their best regalia and enter the building, where they fine a bench in the center of the large room. The bride and groom sit together in the center of the bench, while their mothers sit on either end, each mother sitting beside her own child. The mothers will forever be a part of this marriage commitment, supporting the marriage and giving advice.
Next, the head of the council will ask a series of questions of those on the bench.
The Ceremonial Questions
A council chief asks the bride's mother:
- What is your daughter's name?
- To what clan does your daughter belong?
- Do you think that your daughter is capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of marriage?
- Are you satisfied with your daughter's choice?
- If hard times come, and your daughter and her husband become homeless, would you open your home to them and their children?
The Chief asks the same questions about the groom to his mother. If both mothers answer yes to all questions, the wedding proceeds. If not, the ceremony ends here and the community disperses.
The chief next turns to the bride and groom, asking the woman:
- Are you prepared to be the wife of the man that you have chosen for the rest of your life?
- Will you prepare food for your husband and children?
- Will you care for your husband if he becomes ill?
- When it is dinnertime and your children are out playing with others, you are to call ALL of the children in to eat. If they have dirty faces, you will wash all their faces, just as if they all were all your own children. Do you accept this responsibility?
- As a wife and mother, it is your responsibility to prepare and bring your children to all group ceremonies.
- Marriage is a partnership and no one has the authority over the other; you do not dominate your husband nor does he dominate you.
To the man, the Chief asks the same questions and makes the same statements. Remember that this questioning happens as the couple continue to sit with their mothers in the center of the room with the whole community and many out-of-towners surrounding them.
If both groom and bride agree with the Chief in every question, the ceremony continues.
Two Important Speeches
One of the council chiefs, male or female, with next give a traditional speech called a Thanksgiving Address while holding the nation’s beaded wampum, as though he were holding all the gold at Fort Knox - it is the tribe's wealth. The speech begins with prayer and ends with thanks to all the guests for supporting and witnessing the ceremony.
The chief next gives the Speech of Marriage over the couple and their mothers, explaining the responsibilities and duties that make a marriage strong over a lifetime. After the two speeches, the bride and groom stand to face each other.
The Marriage Baskets
The Mohawk bride and groom hold marriage baskets while facing each other. The baskets are a spiritual symbol that are exchanged instead of wedding rings. At the exchange, the bride tells her groom that she will do all that is required in marriage, naming her new tasks. The groom tells her he will do the same, naming his own new responsibilities.
The woman's marriage basket contains material and clothing to represent that she is committed to her husband and future children. This is a symbol that she will sew, mend, and clean for the household.
The groom's basket contains a cake baked from white cornmeal, often as corn bread sweetened with honey and strawberries. His basket symbolizes his commitment to provide food for his wife and children and the children of the whole community.
Holding the Wampum
The presiding chief hands one end of the wampum to the bride and the other end to the groom. The couple holds it in a pledge to the Creator and Great Spirit that they accept their marriage responsibilities.
Now the Council of Chiefs gather with the couple's mothers to stand before the new husband and wife. The wampum is passed to every individual at the wedding. As each man or woman holds it, he or she offers words of celebration and advice to the couple.
After the wampum passing is completed, the chiefs, all the mothers in the clans, the official Faith Keepers, other officials, all the tribal elders, and all the invited guests shake hands with the wedding party and give additional encouragement and advice.
After large amounts of hand shaking, the wife’s family cuts a wedding cake into small slices for the couple to distribute to everyone. The cake is made according to family traditions and may be corn-based, sweetened with honey, berries, and nuts.
A Big Wedding Feast and Dance
After the ceremonial cake is finished, a Feather Dance honors the great Spirit. It starts as the new husband leads all of the men and youth, while the new wife leads all of the women and girls.
This is the final step in the marriage ceremony, to receive blessings and validation from the Creator. Everyone can now enjoy a large feast of the community's favorite dishes.
The wedding feast is huge and during this extended meal, wedding gifts from guests are opened and gift givers are openly thanked.
After the feast, a nighttime social dance is held in which the new husband and wife lead every dance. After the dance is over, the couple moves in with the bride's family to begin their new life together as part of the community.
Image of a Wedding Guest - From The Song of Hiawatha
He was dressed in shirt of doeskin,
White and soft, and fringed with ermine,
All in-wrought with beads of wampum;
He was dressed in deer-skin leggings,
Fringed with hedgehog quills and ermine,
And in moccasins of buck-skin,
Thick with quills and beads embroidered.
On his head were plumes of swan's down,
On his heels were tails of foxes,
In one hand a fan of feathers,
And a pipe was in the other.
- Anderson, Lynn. Medicine Woman. Tarcher; 1981.
- Anderson, Lynn. Spirit Woman: The Teachings of the Shields. Tarcher; 1984.
- ANTHROP 3420 Class: Indians of North America; The Ohio State University.
- Charles River Editors. Native American Tribes: The History and Culture of the Mohawk. 2013.
- Horatio, Hale. The Iroquois Book of Rites. CreateSpace; 2015. Reproduction of 1883 book.
- Keeping the Tradition Pow Wows; Dayton, Ohio; 1978 - 2016.
- Fred Ross lectures and storytelling; Ohio State Fair; 1978 - 1985.
Questions & Answers
Could you please tell me what have been and what still are some traditional Mohawk wedding gifts that could be given to the bride and groom from their wedding guests ?
Traditionally, giving gifts is sacred at any time among Native Americans; and, at weddings, sometimes the bride and groom give guests gifts instead of the other way around. However, from discussions with Native American presenters at pow wows and festivals, I find that any type of practical gift to be used in the newlyweds' home is acceptable and welcomed, as long as the gift shows respect and honor. This means no "joke" or "sexy" gifts and, since alcohol is disallowed at the wedding and wedding celebration, no bottles of alcohol of any kind and no wine glasses or beer steins, etc. I have heard that the groom in years past sometimes received a newly made bow and arrows; today, fishing gear would be appropriate as well. I have also heard that the bride could receive lovely blankets or even animal skins. In addition, I have seen a couple receive a pair of horses. Another idea is that a Mohawk elder named Jake Swamp wrote a picture book based on the Thanksgiving Address and this would make a fine gift to the couple. These all are some good ideas, but a guest should not give gifts that the couple and their families traditionally make - the wedding wheel, moccasins, marriage baskets, and wedding clothing. Have fun at your next Mohawk wedding!
© 2009 Patty Inglish MS