How The Mohawk Got Its Name

George Catlin, "Beggar's Dance, Mouth of Teton River"
George Catlin, "Beggar's Dance, Mouth of Teton River", 1835-1837, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.443

"You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain, and the north with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance." - Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk) of the Lakota Tribe

For over a century, figure skaters of all ages have been asking their coaches why the step they are learning to perform is called a Mohawk. Some coaches may respond with a shrug. When pressed, others may invent a story about how the Mohawk was invented by a skater centuries ago named Albert Mohawk - perhaps some distant Native American cousin of Ulrich Salchow - and redirect the skater back to the task at hand. The truth is, the history of the Mohawk and how it got its name is murky at best... but a little detective work and hypothesizing can perhaps lead us to a conclusion that makes a little sense.

Mohawk step in figure skating

In his 1897 book "On The Outside Edge: Being Diversions In The History Of Skating", George Herbert Fowler claimed, "The Mohawk step was probably introduced to England on rollers by [Alfred] Moe and [E.T.] Goodrich in 1869-70. It seems to have then been transferred from rollers to ice, and christened at the London Skating Club about 1879." Edgar Syers shared Fowler's belief that the Mohawk was first performed on rollers. In the 1900 edition of "The Encyclopædia Of Sport", he remarked, "I believe that the Mohawk steps were first skated by the professionals Moe and Goodrich at the Crystal Palace Roller Rink in 1870, and afterwards skated and named at the... Skating Club."

The first book to describe the Mohawk was the third edition of Henry Eugene Vandervell and Thomas Maxwell Witham's "A System Of Figure Skating", published by Horace Cox of London in 1880. Vandervell and Witham supported Fowler's later theory that the Mohawk was first performed on rollers. The authors included the step in their chapter on roller skating and claimed that it was 'christened' by the name of Mohawk when it was introduced into the Skating Club's figures on ice and had recently come into vogue. They also remarked, "On ice this is an extremely difficult movement to most men, as few are able to turn out their feet 'spread eagle fashion' so as to describe a curve, the centre of which is at the back of the skater, as this must be done without any assistance from the hold of the skate of the ice; but with the rollers a skater has to only place the skate in the desired position and lean backwards, when the wheels will, so long as the inclination is sustained, hold his feet as it were, and compel them to describe the curve." Both Vandervell and Witham's book and Montagu Sneade Monier-Williams' 1883 book "Combined Figure Skating" described figures in the English Style which included Mohawks, such as 'Twice back - and forward mohawk at centre - and back two turns out - and forward in' and 'Forward inside Mohawk and half-double', noting that several figures including Mohawks were introduced to the Skating Club's 'club figures' but that they "were skated by a few of the members [and] have not become so popular, possibly in consequence of the difficulty of skating them." Interestingly, Vandervell and Witham had described the pattern left on the ice by a cross roll as "resembling an ancient or Indian bow."

Mohawk Valse in ice dancing

In the decades after the Mohawk's introduction, Canadian skater George Meagher coined the term 'Wabuck' for a step he termed "a first or second cousin to the Mohawk." Forty five years after its adoption by The Skating Club, the Mohawk even had its own Waltz, performed on an eight figure and known in Europe as the 'Amerikaner Valse'. Irving Brokaw described it in the 1915 edition of his book "The Art Of Skating" thusly: "Here one partner skates a forward Mohawk, while the other executes a backward one, the partners facing each other, or side by side. The movement takes the pair around the rink in a circle, or by change of edge, it is possible to skate it in eight form. This figure is especially adapted to exhibitions, since a very showy jump can be introduced."

Ponca chiefs Ash-nom-e-kah-ga-he (Lone Chief), Ta-tonka-nuzhe (Standing Buffalo), Wa-ga-sa-pi (Iron Whip), Waste-co-mani (Fast Walker)
Ponca chiefs Ash-nom-e-kah-ga-he (Lone Chief), Ta-tonka-nuzhe (Standing Buffalo), Wa-ga-sa-pi (Iron Whip), Waste-co-mani (Fast Walker). Photo courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

But why the name Mohawk? As early as the 1850's, Britons had a fascination with the stories of 'Cowboys and Indians' in America's Wild West. In 1858 - nearly thirty years before Buffalo Bill arrived in London with his touring Wild West Show and one hundred native Americans in tow - "The Times" in London ran a story about "The American Indian" which discussed the Mohawk, Choctaw and Seminol people. Dime novels abounded with tales of 'American savages' and interestingly, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat's popular book "Scenes And Studies Of Savage Life" came out in 1868... just a year or two before Moe and Goodrich allegedly introduced the step to Londoners on rollers.

In the early 1970's, the USFSA Dance Committee researched the topic and suggested, "With the opening of the American West in the early 1800's, the English were enthralled by accounts of American Indians. A few captured Indians were even shipped across the Atlantic and put on display for the curious Englishmen. This interest in American savages caught on among English skaters, and they adopted the Indian tribal names 'Mohawk' and 'Choctaw', to describe their turns. Although the choice of 'Mohawk' and 'Choctaw' was apparently arbitrary... the reason lies in the fact that the American Indian was the 'in' topic of conversation among nineteenth century skaters."

In her book "Figure Skating History: The Evolution Of Dance On Ice", Lynn Copley-Graves asserted, "In the 1800's the British were fascinated by stories of American Indians. A few American Indians had been brought to England to entertain the British with war dances. Some skaters who saw them thought the spread-eagle pose done in Indian ceremonies resembled the turned-out position of a turn they did on the ice. The tracing made by that turn resembled an Indian bow, so they named the turn the 'mohawk' after the visiting tribe from New York State. This analogy fits the inside-to-inside mohawk." In his 1931 book "The Elements Of Skating", Dr. Ernest Jones also claimed the step was derived "from a cut-like step used by Mohawk Indians in their war dances." Muriel Kay Fulton, the author of "The Key Of Rhythmic Ice Dancing" and "Origins Of Ice Dance Music", was of the firm belief that the steps in the Schöller March (Tenstep), introduced in the late 1880's, resembled war dances that indigenous peoples introduced to European Courts during the Victorian era.

Like it or not, the origins of many figure skating elements are nebulous at best. In the days before we carried around cell phones with built-in cameras in our pockets, two skaters in different countries could easily have been working on the same jump around the same time. The one who landed it first could just as easily not be the skater that history has remembered as its originator. While we can't decisively say how the Mohawk got its name - or many other things in skating history for that matter - that shouldn't stop us from digging... and coming up with our own educated conclusions.

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