Mohawk Ironworkers – An Old Spirit Rises From The Ashes

By Raymond Barfett

It was a beautiful autumn morning in New York City — a few soft white clouds were floating against the blue sky. Most people were on their way to work and everyone was enjoying the freshness provided by the cool air from the North; it had been an extremely hot summer.

Several Mohawk Ironworkers were already at work, fifty floors above the bustling city streets at a job site in Lower Manhattan.

They were from the Akwasasne Reserve in upstate NY and over the past one hundred and fifty years ironwork had become a part of their long-standing tradition as architects and builders.

The normalcy of their day ended suddenly and abruptly. Richard Otto and his crew looked up in amazement as an airliner flew by the building, a scant fifty feet from their crane. It was headed in the direction of the World Trade Center (WTC), just ten blocks away. A moment later it crashed into one of the Towers.

Otto quickly got on his cell phone and called Michael Swamp, Business Manager of Ironworkers Local 440 on the Akwesasne Reserve to inform him of the tragedy. While they were talking another airliner passed by, heading in the same direction. This could not just be an accident, something was seriously wrong here.

Otto told Swamp the plane was going to hit the second Tower. Swamp heard Otto frantically telling the workers to get out of there, then there was a thunderous boom and the phone went dead.

There were about one hundred Mohawk men from the Ironworkers Union working at construction sites in NYC and New Jersey that morning and those who could headed directly to ground zero.

Some of these men had worked on the WTC from the beginning; they knew their way around the buildings and they hoped they could help save some lives.

Grave danger and pressure are a daily way of life for these men who toil high above the ground. They showed no fear; they knew the Great Spirit and the Spirits of their Forefathers were with them. They were some of the first rescuers on the scene; helping stunned and injured people out of the buildings. After the buildings collapsed they immediately began searching for survivors.

Meanwhile Michael Swamp had called the sister locals in Utica, Albany and Syracuse and coordinated recruitment of union members to relieve the hard-pressed workers.

They would spend days, weeks, and months clearing up the rubble. These brave and courageous Mohawk men followed a path that was walked before them by several generations of Mohawks from New York State, Quebec and Ontario. It was a path well worn, evolving out of necessity, courage, and pride.

History of the Mohawk ironworkers

In the year 1886 the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build the Victoria Bridge and it would span the mighty St. Lawrence River and connect Montreal to the Kahnawake Reserve.

They contracted out the job to the Dominion Bridge Company. In exchange for being allowed to run the railroad through Mohawk Territory, Grand Trunk arranged for Dominion to hire some of the Mohawks as laborers to work on the bridge site. This decision would have a huge impact upon the lifestyle of many Mohawks, an effect that remains to this very day.

Their first job was to supply the stone for the large piers that would support the bridge.

When their shifts ended, they would hang out on the bridge watching the other workers to see what they were doing.

Even young Native children became curious and soon they were climbing all over the span, right alongside the men. The workers noticed that the Mohawk’s agility, grace and sense of balance made it seem as though they had a natural disposition for heights.

Fearless Wonders
When management became aware of this, they hired and trained a dozen tribal members as ironworkers. The original twelve, all teenagers, were so adept at working at high altitudes, they were known as the ‘Fearless Wonders’.

They would walk on narrow beams several hundred feet above the raging river and yet it appeared as though they were just on a casual walk along a forest path.

In their book ‘This Land was Theirs’ (1999), Oswalt and Neely state, “Some outsiders have suggested that an absence of fear of height was inborn, but it seem more likely that the trait was learned”.

Perhaps some of these men did not fear heights and those that did likely repressed their fear in order to gain employment. Constructing bridges and skyscrapers was extremely dangerous work and many of the young Mohawks were drawn to it not only for high wages, but also perhaps for an opportunity to prove their courage. They worked very hard at learning their newfound trade and soon began to train other men from their Reserve.

The Mohawk ironworkers used their native language while they riveted steel beams, high up on bridges and skyscrapers. They spoke to each other continuously in Mohawk and this reinforced their own language competency.

Sometimes they even taught Mohawk to their non-native co-workers. The Mohawks also used ‘sign language’, signals made with the hands, which was instrumental in allowing them to communicate with each other quickly and clearly, while working on narrow iron beams, hundreds of feet above the earth.

Over the next fifty years many people from various First Nations would follow in the footsteps of the Mohawks of Kahnawake.

They became renowned for their ability to walk high steel beams with balance and grace, seemingly without any fear, and ironwork became a matter of identity and great pride within the First Nations.

The legend of their innate abilities began to apply to native men from all over the Woodland area and thus allowed them to get hired all across the US and Canada. These men helped to shape and build the ‘New America’.

By the early 1900’s the emergence of the modern-day skyscraper occurred. Iron bridges and tall buildings, those were the future. Chicago and New York City were reaching for the stars.

From the beginning of that new age of construction, the Mohawks were there, ‘sky-walking’ on the clouds, high above it all. The men made the long journey from their reserves to the big cities alone, leaving their families and then returning once or twice a month to visit.

These Mohawk men, who worked in the Ironworkers Industry of America, soon became legendary and were known in later years as the ‘Skywalkers’.

By the 1930’s the Mohawks began to move in large numbers from the Kahnawake and Akwesasne Reserves in Canada and upstate NY. They were attracted by New York’s great building boom, fueled by Depression-era Public Works, and later the post-war economic revival.

Entire families set up their own little communities within the midst of the unknown bustling city. It was quite a contrast to their quiet lives back home.

One such community was formed in Brooklyn in the vicinity of the Cuyler Church. Reverend Cory welcomed these Mohawk families to attend his church and treated them the same as any of God’s children.

He spent a great deal of time learning their language, so much so that he was able to translate religious readings into the Mohawk-Oneida dialect. He also promoted the reacquisition of Mohawk traditional culture and made the resources of the church available to the Native community for that purpose.

The church also served as a community center where people would often gather to hear news from home, tell stories, trade information, and hold cultural events. By the late 1950’s construction in New York City diminished, thus decreasing employment and causing numerous Mohawk families to vacate the North Gowanus enclave.

Manhattan Island needs healing
The Mohawks from New York State and Canada once controlled all the land in the Hudson Valley, including Manhattan Island and most of Long Island.

They were the Keepers of the Eastern Door of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Mohawks were instrumental in the construction of many of the bridges and skyscrapers of New York City; such as the Woolworth Building, the Empire State Building, the Waldorf Astoria, the RCA Building (now the GE Bldg.), the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Columbia Center, the George Washington Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Parkway, and any other ironwork project that required courageous men with nerves of steel.

In his statement to the Members of Canada’s Parliament, National Chief Matthew Coon Come said, “I want to convey to you the sense of seriousness that First Nations peoples hold for the September 1, 2001 events. This is our homeland. Our Elders refer to the land as ‘Mother Earth’, and when anyone harms our Mother, be it through the destruction of the environment, or by the taking of human life that was put here, it hurts us all.”

The damage of 9/11 had to be dealt with immediately and the Great Spirit had to be invoked to aid in the healing process. The drums started beating, word spread out quickly and millions of prayers were forthcoming from Native peoples all across North America. Deeply touched, not only did they send their prayers, they started sending millions of dollars in donations.

The Elders knew that that there was an open wound on the tip of Manhattan Island; a wound that had to be healed before everyone could move forward with their lives. They were honored when an invitation was offered to attend the 17th Annual Candlelight Vigil of Remembrance and Hope to be held at the West End Collegiate Church in NYC on April 21/02.

This year’s theme was ‘Bringing Honor to Victims’ and would pay special tribute to the families of the 9/11 disaster. The Mohawk peoples would lead everyone in the Healing Ceremony.

Kwan Bennett, a Cherokee member of the Thunderbird Dancers, coordinated the New York City American Indian Community’s participation in the Candlelight Vigil. She told Jim Kent, a reporter for the Native Times, that she knows many Mohawk ironworkers who’ve taken part in the recovery efforts at ‘Ground Zero’ and at times feels overwhelmed by the impact the tragedy has had on them and the rest of the city’s American Indian population.

“I know that the people of the Iroquois Nations who are taking care of this land that was once part of where their people lived are really touched to the core by what has happened,” Bennett observed. There’s been a lot of talk, particularly by the Elders, that we actually need to have a cleansing…a healing at the site. There’s a lot of spiritual work that needs to be done.”

The opening procession was led by the NYC Dept. of Correction Bag Pipe Band, followed by the Pipeline Pipe and Drum Band, Mohawks from the Kahnawake and Akwesasne Reserves, and members of the First Nations from all across North America. They were wearing their traditional regalia and carrying fans, rattles, turtle shells, and smudge pots.

The opening prayer by Arthur Powless, a Medicine Elder and former ironworker, was given in his Native language and was interpreted by Jerry McDonald of Akwasasne, a member of Local 440.

Don Cardinal, a traditional healer from the Cree Nations, placed the Men’s Eagle Staff and Peace Pipe on the podium and Kwan Bennett placed the Women’s Eagle Staff.

The Eagle Staff has represented Native peoples for thousands of years and has ceremonial and symbolic purpose. The Eagle Staff is carried to focus the intent of those it represents and signifies a strong spiritual message for those it honors.

Every Eagle Staff is unique in design; made that way through the knowledge of its maker, according to the purpose and representation. The decision to make and use such a staff is always a serious undertaking.

Survivors, family members and children read original poetry and messages of hope and recovery. The Akwesasne Women’s Singers, the Heyna Second Sons, pianist Eric Alderfer, the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, and Luis Mofsie, Director of the Thunderbird American Dancers, provided musical enrichment and entertainment.

The Candlelight Vigil included spirituality and rituals. Guests received ‘solace stones’ as a symbol of the long journey of restoration, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually.
The Grey Elders from the Pine Ridge Reserve offered the ceremonial sage. White Pine needles were brought for the ceremony from Ohswegan, the Six Nations Reservation in Canada and were lit at the same time as the candles, as a symbol of ‘Unity’.

During the solemn candle lighting ceremony, attendees recited the names of family members and friends who were so suddenly taken away. While loved ones offered testimonials to the civilian and uniformed heroes of 9/11, meaningful and inspirational slides were shown. A book of ‘Remembrance and Hope’ recording the names of victims was ritually dedicated.

Kwan Bennett delivered the introduction for the closing prayer, recited by Rayne Holley, Gabrielle Perez, Kia Benbow and Hunter McDonald, four children ranging in age from seven to twelve. Luis Mofsie played the Men’s Drum for the closing song and healer Don Cardinal smoked the peace pipe to close the ceremonies. A marvelous feast was presented and greatly enjoyed by all.

The Great Spirit had been invoked and the healing process of Mother Earth was well underway.