‘It’s an exercise in reconnection’: Genealogy project links Grand River Mohawks to forgotten clan roots

Dakota Brant says tracing the matrilineal lineage of Mohawk clans on Six Nations and Tyendinaga is about more than genealogy.

“Most of all, this is decolonizing work,” said Brant, a researcher from Six Nations who is leading this work through the Mohawk Valley Kinship Project.

Colonialism, Brant explained, not only dispossessed the Mohawks and other Haudenosaunee nations of their land and traditional governance, but of the matrilineal clan system that defines Haudenosaunee identity.

“A big part of the legacy of truth and reconciliation for our community is to make those connections again to who we are — our nationhood, who we are spiritually, and how we connect to the land,” she said.

“And all of that as Haudenosaunee people, we are told from the day we are born, is relayed through our matrilineal system.”

Those connections were lost when the Indian Act of 1876 caused a “breakdown” of that system and lineage started to be traced through patrilineal lines, Brant said. Marriage and birth records quickly became muddled, with the same woman listed as belonging to different clans depending on the document.

“She’s being described by her relationship to her father or her husband, and meanwhile we would never know what (clan) she actually is — what her mother is. And that’s of great frustration in a community like ours,” Brant said.

“We’re coming on five, six generations since the Indian Act was put in place, and that’s how far removed some of our families are from knowing who they truly are as Mohawk people.”

In 2021, Brant set out to re-establish those lost matrilineal connections by tracing every Mohawk clan back to its origins in the Mohawk Valley, an area that became upstate New York.

Her research continued last year under the auspices of the Six Nations Public Library, with financial support through a $50,000 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant.

Along with interviewing clan mothers and elders, Brant scoured reference books and Confederacy lists, church registries and adoption records, censuses and obituaries to track hereditary Mohawk names as families moved to the Grand River and the Bay of Quinte.

The result of her ongoing work is 24 trees, each representing a different Mohawk clan, with the earliest records dating to 1645.

One of the trees represents 64 Grand River families, with hundreds of names recorded.

“These trees are going to help a lot of people rediscover or reaffirm who they are,” Brant said. “It’s an exercise in reconnection.”

Library CEO Feather Maracle said she was proud to support this “precedent-setting” research, which will be freely accessible at the library.

“This is a living document, and this is only one portion. These are just the Mohawks,” Maracle said. “There’s five other nations, and they have more clans. So there’s more to be done.”

The trees are not available online — a deliberate decision to encourage people interested in their heritage to visit in person.

“That sense of belonging, that sense of being home, you can’t get that from a computer screen,” Maracle said.

“That has to come from being physically in a space where your ancestors belonged and spent time. There’s a lot of comfort to be gained from that.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator