Is the Name of This New Windsor Terrace Bar Racist?

Mohawk Tavern, a controversial bar in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn

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

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  1. What BS! I’m First Nations/Native American (Seneca Nation) and I don’t find this offensive at all. The Redskins mascot? Sure. Fine. But this? Seriously not a problem. Knock yourselves out. But I do enjoy watching all you silly rich white people get all worked into a lather on our behalf. Thanks, but where was all your misplaced guilt 200 years ago? Why don’t you people go get outraged on somebody else’s behalf and leave us out of it? Wait till you people find out what those Mardi Gras “Indians” have been doing down in New Orleans for generations – your delicate little PC heads are just gonna explode! Stupid white people.

  2. Personally, I can see how some may feel offended by their use if the name (or the utilization of Native American names in general.)
    I have a problem with the term “racism” being used. I’ve always understood racism to have negative connotations akin to prejudice and discrimination. The owners (and this article) gave a very insightful explaination as to how Native American names have become so ingrained in our culture that, as pointed out, newly named establishments derive from geographic locations centuries-old. I fail to see how that equates to “racism”?
    Making a statement such as “Native Americans do more harm to their heritage by building casinos than having places, teams and things named after them” could be construed as racism because it is generalizing an entire people.

  3. I’ve got an idea for the “offended commenters”, don’t fucking eat there. It blows my mind that this is an “issue” that is receiving media attention. If people weren’t looking for problems, the world would be an easier place to coexist with others. They think the word “Mohawk” is offensive to native Americans, but I guarantee none of these idiots are actually Native American. I am Native American, and I don’t have the slightest problem with it, so don’t try and speak on our behalf. If you’ve got a problem, then venture on down to another establishment, but don’t use the word “racist” and accuse these guys of that.

  4. Well, I’m not Native American, but I am originally from Mohawk, NY. Naming an establishment after a major geographic feature of the state we live in (Have you looked recently at how much of the state the Mohawk crosses through? Basically all of it) cannot be ‘racist.’ If it was called the Mohawk Tavern and was full of stereotypical racist “Indian” things like idk, tomahawks and teepees, then yeah. But it’s called the Mohawk tavern and it has a painting of the Adirondacks, and a selection of Upstate brews. The difference is drastic.

    Something that IS racist: the Mohawk High School sports teams were called the Mohicans. In case you aren’t familiar with your Iroquois history, this is ironic because the Mohawks and Mohicans had an extremely violent and hateful feud which culminated in the Mohawks driving the Mohicans permanently out of the state. Even better, the Mohawk Mohican’s mascot was a representation of a Sioux chief. This clusterfuck continued to exist (without any protest that I know of) up until 2013, at which point the school merged with neighboring districts and ceased to exist.

  5. Seriously…. people need to get a life. Enough with all this uptight pc bullshit. You people are sucking the soul out of Brooklyn. Go back to your Mid-Western hometowns and wallow in a bowl of artisan gluten free porridge.