Is the Name of This New Windsor Terrace Bar Racist?

Mohawk Tavern, a controversial bar in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn
Via Kensington BK

A new bar in Windsor Terrace has decided to change its name after some pressure from those in the community, DNAinfo reports. The Mohawk Tavern was founded by two guys who grew up together near Albany; they explained to the blog Kensington BK why they chose the name. 

The Mohawk River forms the northern border of Albany County right where it meets up with the Hudson. The bar has an upstate New York theme, in that we plan to serve all New York State beers, at least on draft, and serve wines from the Finger Lakes as well as other wine growing regions of New York. The decor is kind of lodge/Adirondack campy (in both senses of the word), if that means anything. We wanted the name to tie in with our theme and evoke images of the mountains and lakes of upstate. I’ll let the customers decide if we pulled that off.

Obviously we recognize that the Mohawk are also a people, and any place or body of water named Mohawk in upstate NY comes from them. Hopefully no one of Native American ancestry will take offense to our using the name Mohawk. Tons of place names upstate, and all over the country, come from Native American languages. So, to us, Mohawk refers to the part of upstate where we grew up, and you’re not going to find any Native American artifacts or imagery in the bar.

Just in the city, we have lots of names derived from Native Americans: the Gowanus Canal (and its surrounding neighborhood) takes its name from Gouwane, chief of the, ahem, Canarsee tribe. Manhattan comes from the Lenape name Mannahatta. By retaining these names, we acknowledge the history of the place in which we live—instead of denying it by erasing it completely—and, these days, even remind ourselves of the troubled history upon which it was settled. Opening a bar in Brooklyn named “Mohawk” seems no different from my opening a bar upstate and calling it Gowanus—an acknowledgment of a person’s roots, even if the geographical reference bears a name that originally belonged to an indigenous peoples stamped out by invaders. The owners are clearly not trying to exploit Native American culture and history (and colonizers’ long, troubled relationship to it) for profit; you could imagine many more offensive things than naming a bar after a river, such as naming a football franchise after a racial slur.

But others see it differently. “While the intention may be to show respect for native/indigenous peoples and cultures, this is never the impact,” the most reasonable of the offended commenters writes at Kensington BK. “Native/indigenous people’s names and cultures are not ours to claim, and these actions need to be understood as a function of our racism.” I don’t quite see the connection—though I’m happy to have my mind changed by thoughtful arguments in the comments section below—and instead find myself more sympathetic to a different commenter:

 The owners of the bar have clearly tried… [to create] an atmosphere that evokes these different regions. They are not ‘appropriating’ anything, but rather recalling a real place that happened to be named after a Native American group two hundred years ago. This is not the ‘Redskins’—which is a completely valid target for outrage and activism. This is a small neighborhood bar named after an area of Upstate New York where the owners happen to be from. Please take some time to meditate on the difference and consider directing your time and energy toward more worthy campaigns.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart