“A lot of people think Mohawks aren’t afraid of heights; that’s not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better. We also have the experience of the old timers to follow and the responsibility to lead the younger guys. There’s pride in ‘walking iron.’” —Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais (Mohawk, Kahnawake —March 2002)
Book: The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan by Renee Valois (Excerpt: The History Channel)
High atop a New York University building one bright September day, Mohawk ironworkers were just setting some steel when the head of the crew heard a big rumble to the north. Suddenly a jet roared overhead, barely 50 feet from the crane they were using to set the steel girders in place. “I looked up and I could see the rivets on the plane, I could read the serial numbers it was so low, and I thought ‘What is he doing going down Broadway?’” recalls the crew’s leader, Dick Oddo. Crew members watched in disbelief as the plane crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, just 10 blocks away.
At first, Oddo says, he thought it was pilot error. He got on his cell phone to report the crash to Mike Swamp, business manager of Ironworkers Local 440, but he began to wonder. Then another jet flew by. “When the plane hit the second tower, I knew it was all planned”…In the months that followed, many Mohawk ironworkers volunteered to help in the cleanup. There was a terrible irony in dismantling what they had helped to erect: Hundreds of Mohawks had worked on the World Trade Center from 1966 to 1974. The last girder was signed by Mohawk ironworkers, in keeping with ironworking tradition.
Walking the Iron
Mohawks have been building skyscrapers for six generations. The first workers came from the Kahnawake Reservation near Montreal, where in 1886 the Canadian Pacific Railroad sought to construct a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River, landing on reservation property. In exchange for use of the Mohawks’ land, the railroad and its contractor, the Dominion Bridge Co., agreed to employ tribesmen during construction. The builders had intended to use the Indians as laborers to unload supplies, but that didn’t satisfy the Mohawks…
The Indians were especially interested in riveting, one of the most dangerous jobs in
construction and, then as now, one of the highest paid. Few men wanted to do it; fewer could do it well, and in good construction years there were sometimes too few riveters to meet construction demand, according to the New Yorker article. So the company decided to train a few of the persistent Mohawks. “It turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs,” the Dominion official declared. “In other words, they were natural-born bridge-men.” According to company lore, 12 young men—enough for three riveting gangs—were thus trained… Then tragedy struck. American structural engineer Theodore Cooper had designed the Quebec Bridge, a cantilevered truss bridge that would extend 3,220 feet across the St. Lawrence River above Quebec City. Because the Quebec Bridge Co. was strapped for cash, the company was eager to accept his design, which specified far less steel than was typical for a bridge of that size.
As the bridge grew, disturbing bends in the structure were explained away by Cooper and John Deans, chief engineer of Phoenix Bridge, the company building the bridge, as damage probably caused offsite before the beams were set in place. No one wanted to admit that the expensive bridge appeared increasingly unable to bear its own weight.
On Aug. 29, 1907, the bridge collapsed. Of the 75 men who died, 33 were Mohawks—about half of the tribe’s high-steel workers.
Exercise 1 Vocabulary Practice
Directions: The following vocabulary words (in bold) are from the reading selection you’ve just finished. Find the words and highlight them, to help you locate the sentences. Try to infer the meanings from the context. Highlight any additional words that you aren’t familiar with and do the same with those. Check your answers with your group members, and then refer to your dictionary or thesaurus to confirm your guesses.
1. Mohawk ironworkers were just setting some steel…
2. Suddenly a jet roared overhead, barely 50 feet from the crane they were using
3. barely 50 feet from the crane they were using to set the steel girders in place.
4. “I looked up and I could see the rivets on the plane…”
5. There was a terribleirony in dismantling what they had helped to erect…
6. The last girder was signed by Mohawk ironworkers, in keeping with ironworking tradition.
7. Mohawks have been building skyscrapers for six generations.
8. where in 1886 the Canadian Pacific Railroad sought to construct a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River…
9. the Dominion Bridge Co., agreed to employ tribesmen during construction.
10. but that didn’t satisfy the Mohawks…
11. So the company decided to train a few of the persistent Mohawks.
12. According to company lore, 12 young men—enough for three riveting gangs-
13. Then tragedy struck.
14. Because the Quebec Bridge Co. was strapped for cash…
Exercise 2 Discussion Questions for Comprehension
1. On what disaster does the story open?
2. During what years did the Mohawks work on building the World Trade Center?
3. Where did the first Mohawk workers come from?
4. What structure did the Canadian Pacific Railroad want to build in 1886?
5. Why did the contractor Dominion Bridge Co., agree to use Mohawks?
6. What jobs had the builders originally intended for the Mohawks?
7. An official who worked for the Dominion Bridge Co. stated that members of the tribe would “ go out on the bridge during construction every chance they got… they would climb up and onto the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters…” However, ironworker Don Angus a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve, provided a reason for this display of “fearless” behavior. What was his statement?
8. What dangerous job were the Mohawks especially interested in doing?
9. Why did the company train a few of the more persistent Mohawks for this dangerous position?
10. What tragic event occurred on On August 29, 1907?
11. After this tragedy that killed so many Mohawk high-steel workers, how did the Mohawks feel about ironworking?
12. The plan that the “Mohawk women” insisted the men follow was the turning point for the Mohawk iron workers in Canada. What was this plan, and why did the women encourage it?
13. The Mohawks had worked in New York City as early as 1901, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that they came in large numbers, working in tight-knit four-man gangs. Why did this occur?
14. The Mohawk high-steel men were responsible for building some of the most famous structures in New York City, known world-wide. Name some of them.
15. As mentioned earlier, riveting was the most dangerous job in high-steel building. Because of the danger involved, who did the Mohawks prefer to work with on these jobs?
16. Today, although the ironworking technology has improved, what is the death rate for ironworkers?
17. What is the pay for an ironworker today?
18. Why did so many Mohawks steelworkers move to Brooklyn New York?
19. Ten years later, many Mohawks returned back to their homes in Kahnawake, give three reasons for this occurrence.
20. How do the Mohawk steelworkers handle living at home and working in New York city today?
21. What is the controversy between steel vs. concrete as building material for high structures?
22. Because steel is still considerably stronger than concrete many experts say that steel structures will never completely disappear. How do the Mohawk ironworkers feel about this?
Exercise 3 Research Activities
Directions: Choose one of the following topics to research then present the results of your findings to the class.
1. Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve
2. Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne
3. Mohawk Ironworkers Today
Exercise 4 Writing Activity Using Photos
Directions: Choose one of the photos from this lesson and write a paragraph about the photo. Use the following as a guide for your writing.
a) Describe the action in the photo.
b) Describe what the person (or people) might be thinking.
c) Would you be willing to climb a skyscraper under construction? Why or why not?
Talking Feather’s original post- Mohawks: Iron Birds of “Hope”
The Film SKYDANCER by Katja Esson, is a feature length documentary that takes a provocative look at the Mohawk Sky Walkers and Indian life in the 21st Century.
The Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center: for more than 120 years, Mohawk ironworkers have raised America’s modern cityscapes. They are called ‘sky walkers’ because they walk fearlessly atop steel beams just a foot wide, high above the city. Who are these Mohawk sky walkers? What is their secret for overcoming fear? Has ‘sky walking’ replaced an ancient rite of passage? Or is it the pure need to adapt in order to survive? And what is their life really like, when every Friday at quitting time, they jump in their cars and make the eight-hour drive up north to their families on the reservation? SKYDANCER is a feature length documentary that takes a provocative look at Indian life in the 21st Century.
To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey by Reaghan Tarbell
To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey is an hour-long documentary about the personal story of Mohawk filmmaker Reaghan Tarbell from Kahnawake, Quebec as she explores her roots and traces the connections of her family to the Mohawk community in Brooklyn, New York. (PBS)
High Steel by Don Own
This short (14minutes) view of the Mohawk Indians of Kahnawake who work in New York City building the steel frames of skyscrapers.
Skywalkers: Mohawk Ironworker Build the City, by David Weitman
Apologies to the Iroquois…The Mohawks in High Steel by Joseph Mitchell.
*Mohawk Photos courtsey of *Booming Out Exhibit
1. The History Channel Club: The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan by Renee Valois
3. High Steel Wikipedia
4. Mohawk Cultural Language Center
Teachers Guide and Answer Key for Mohawk Iron Walkers
Note to Teachers:
The goal of this material is to raise students’ awareness of the American Indian people living in the United States today, and to encourage learners to view Native Indians as an integral part of American society. This lesson plan focuses specifically on the Mohawk Iron workers. Although there have been and are members of other tribes (and non-Indians) who also work in this dangerous line of work, the Mohawks were the first Indian group to enter into this field.
Our hope is that students will see the native people of this country as workers, students, professionals, parents, and leaders of their communities.
The construction of the exercises makes the reading material more of a communicative activity, and helps students to better understand the content. There are pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading tasks. Although the majority of the exercises are suggested for group work, especially during class, students can complete the activities independently as homework assignments. At the following class meeting, their responses can be used as the basis for group discussions. The research activities can also be completed individually or as collaborative group projects.
The language skills for the lessons are reading, speaking, and writing. We are working on finding a good listening source to use for an activity. These exercises are intended for ESL students, but everyone can use them. Although the reading level is high-intermediate to advanced, teachers can modify the material as needed for their level of learners. We welcome suggestions.
Exercise 1 Vocabulary Practice
Note: The more technical terms have links to photos depicting what they look like so students (and teachers) can understand the meanings better. The term “ironworker” meaning is from wikipedia. All other meanings are from the New Oxford American dictionary.
1. ironworker noun. a tradesman (man or woman) who works in the ironworking industry. Ironworkers erect (or even dismantle) the structural steel framework of pre-engineered metal buildings.
2. crane noun. a large, tall machine used for moving heavy objects, typically by suspending them from a projecting arm or beam.
3. rivets noun. a short metal pin or bolt for holding together two plates of metal, its headless end being beaten out or pressed down when in place. Photo of various rivets.
4. dismantling verb. to take apart.
5. tradition noun. the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.
6. skyscrapers noun. a very tall building of many stories. The Empire State Building is an example of a skyscraper.
7. cantilever noun.a long projecting beam or girder fixed at only one end, used chiefly in bridge construction. Photo of cantilever.
8. employ verb. give work to (someone) and pay them for it : the firm employs 150 people.
9. satisfy verb. ( -fies, -fied) meet the expectations, needs, or desires of (someone) : I have never been satisfied with my job.
10. persistent adjective. continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition : one of the government’s most persistent critics.
11. lore noun. a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject or held by a particular group, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth : the jinns of Arabian lore.
12. tragedy noun. ( pl. -dies) an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe : a tragedy that killed 95 people.
13. strapped adjective. ( informal) short of money : I’m constantly strapped for cash.
Exercise 2 Discussion Questions for Comprehension
1. The twin tower crash in September 11, 2001.
2. From 1966 to 1974.
3. The first workers came from the Kahnawake Reservation near Montreal.
4. In 1886 the Canadian Pacific Railroad sought to construct a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River, landing on reservation property.
5. It was in the agreement that In exchange for use of the Mohawks’ land, the railroad and its contractor, the Dominion Bridge Co., agreed to employ tribesmen during construction.
6. The builders originally wanted the Mohawks to work as laborers unloading supplies.
7. Don Angus explains that his ancestors back then were just teenagers daring each other to climb the 150-foot structure and “walk the iron.”
8. The Indians were especially interested in riveting, one of the most dangerous jobs in construction and, then as now, one of the highest paid.
9. Riveting, one of the most dangerous jobs in construction and one of the highest paid. Few men wanted to do it; fewer could do it well, and in good construction years there were sometimes too few riveters to meet construction demand.
10. In August 29, 1907, The Quebec Bridge, a cantilevered truss bridge that would extend 3,220 feet across the St. Lawrence River above Quebec City collapsed. Of the 75 men who died, 33 were Mohawks—about half of the tribe’s high-steel workers.
11. Surprisingly, the tragedy didn’t turn Mohawks away from ironworking. According to an elderly Mohawk quoted in the 1949 New Yorker article, “It made high steel much more interesting to them. It made them take pride in themselves that they could do such dangerous work. After the disaster . . . they all wanted to go into high steel.”
12. To ensure that so many tribesmen were never again killed in one accident, the Mohawk women insisted that the men split into smaller groups to work on a variety of building projects. That’s when they began booming out—tribal slang for scattering to find high-steel work away from home, in New York City and other distant places.
13. There was a high demand for workers during a massive building boom, later stoked by Depression-era public works and then post-World War II prosperity. The Mohawks came eventually not only from Kahnawake, but from other reservations as well, including Akwesasne (or Akwasasne) in upstate New York, near Canada.
14. Mohawk high-steel men worked on virtually every big construction project in New York City: the Empire State Building, the RCA Building, the Daily News Building, the Bank of Manhattan Building, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations, and Madison Square Garden. They also continued to build bridges, including the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Hell’s Gate Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, and many more.
15. Because of the dangerous nature of the job, riveters preferred to work with partners they trusted; for Mohawks, this meant relatives and fellow tribesmen. They were referred to as four-man riveting gangs.
16. Even today, ironworkers still die on the job at a rate of 35 to 50 fatalities each year—75 percent of them from falls.
17. The pay continues to bring the Mohawks back: Ironworkers today earn about $35 an hour plus benefits, which in busy times yields $65,000 to $70,000 a year.
18. In 1927 a federal court judge, citing the 150-year-old Jay Treaty, ruled that the Mohawks could pass freely between Canada and the United States since their territory had included portions of both nations. But because the drive from New York City to Kahnawake took almost 12 hours, many of the men instead moved their families to Brooklyn. By 1960, around 800 Mohawks lived there. A Mohawk steelworker conclave had sprung up near Fourth Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, with grocery stores stocking their favored o-nen-sto cornmeal and churches offering services in their native language.
19. The new Adirondack Northway had halved the time it took to drive between New York and Kahnawake, a growing pride in Indian culture, and crime was rising New York City.
20. Today most of the high-steel Mohawks still live in the city during the week, often sharing lodgings, and drive home to their families in Kahnawake and Akwesasne every weekend.
21. Concrete: Since the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, and recent improvements in reinforced concrete have made it more attractive in some ways than steel: It goes up faster, requires less height for the same number of floors, is easier to modify during construction, and—most important in the wake of 9/11—it’s more resistant to heat. Steel: On the other hand, steel is still considerably stronger than concrete, and steel-framed buildings are easier to modify to suit the needs of successive tenants.
22. The Mohawks, who after six generations have made high steel a tribal tradition, are ready to work with steel structures. “It makes you a better man,” says Swamp.
Exercise 3 Research Activities
Exercise 4 Writing Activity Using Photos.
Have students share their descriptions with the class.