Honoring Native Americans who built skyscrapers, bridges

New exhibit at Iroquois Indian Museum
A photo of Turhan Clause, an Algonquin and Mohawk ironworker, on a fake beam in the exhibit.
A photo of Turhan Clause, an Algonquin and Mohawk ironworker, on a fake beam in the exhibit.

The next time you’re in Manhattan, a place where skyscrapers poke at the clouds, look up and think about this:

The men who built those giants were perched hundreds of feet above the ground and walked on girders less than 12 inches wide.

The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Time Warner Building. Haudenosaunee ironworkers from the Six Nations of the Iroquois, most of them Mohawks, raised and riveted the beams of New York’s iconic buildings.

From 1968 to 1972, the World Trade Center was built by 500 men, 200 of whom were Mohawks.

At the Iroquois Indian Museum, a new exhibit, “Walking the Steel: From Girder to Ground Zero,” honors the Native Americans who proudly chose jobs in structural ironworking, one of the most dangerous occupations in construction.

“The structures are larger than life, the stories are larger than life,” says Colette Lemmon, curator of exhibitions.

“We hope this will pull in guys that are in construction, women in construction, young people who are interested in construction.”

Tools, work clothes, historic photos, artwork and many other objects borrowed from ironworkers were brought together to tell their stories.

The exhibit “resonates with family values, community values, things we forget,” says Lemmon.

“The ideas are about teamwork, responsibility for actions, standing up to fear.”

The story begins in the 1880s with Mohawks on Kahnawake Indian lands in Quebec.

When the Dominion Bridge Company of Canada wanted to build a bridge from Montreal through the Kahnawake, the contract to obtain land rights required that they hire Mohawks. The Native Americans proved to be skilled climbers and were trained to do structural ironwork.

But then, in 1907, tragedy struck, when another span over the Saint Lawrence, the Quebec Bridge, collapsed while under construction.

Ninety-six men were killed, 33 of them Mohawks. Twenty-four women were widowed, 56 children lost their fathers.

In the exhibit, we see the murderous pile of rumble and a news clipping about the disaster from The New York Times that lists the names of the white Americans and Canadians but not the Native Americans.

But the Mohawk ironworkers from Kahnawake and Akwesasne, on the border of the U.S. and Canada, were undaunted. There was a building boom in New York City and skilled men were needed.

 “It was a 12 ½ hour drive to the city and coming back on weekends,” says Lemmon.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mohawk ironworkers and their families also lived in a community of 800 in the North Gowanus section of Brooklyn.

Lemmon says it’s a myth that Native Americans have an in-born ability to work at great heights.

“People think that they are fearless and have supernatural powers. That’s not true. Enough of them have died to prove that they don’t have superpowers. Almost everyone has stories of family members who have been injured or killed. It’s the ability to control that fear. And yes, it’s high-paying but there’s more to it. It’s become a rite of passage. They are very proud of that heritage.”

Photos of Iroquois ironworkers, past and present, appear throughout the gallery.

Joseph Thomas Snow from Kahnawake was captured high above the East River, working on the Throgs Neck Bridge in the 1950s.  Turhan Clause, Algonquin and Mohawk, from the Niagara Falls area, shows up in a life-size cut-out that stands on a fake girder 10 feet above the gallery floor.

Remember “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” the famous 1932 photo of 11 men sitting on a steel beam high above Manhattan?

“As many as four of these men are Mohawks,” Lemmon says.

Glass cases are filled with spud wrenches, tool belts, hardhats and construction boots.

“Tool belts are handed down in families,” she says.

A tool belt from the 1950s has a release pin. If a worker fell, he could pull the pin and the belt would drop off so he wouldn’t be impaled by his tools.

Near the tools, one can listen to the recorded voices of more than a dozen ironworkers who are on the job today.

Among the artworks are six photos of ironworkers that were transferred onto canvas painted in the fluorescent colors of construction safety vests. The artist, Lindsay Delaronde, had women in her Mohawk community do the beadwork that frames the images.

Barry Printup, a Tuscarora, from a family that boasts 20 ironworkers over four generations, offers “Beading Your Tools,” in which a spud wrench and a scabber, which holds the wrench, is encased in blue and white beadwork. Printup, a member of Union Ironworkers Local 9, has worked the steel from Albany to Alaska.

In one corner of the exhibit, there’s a solemn remembrance of 9/11 and the Twin Towers.

“A lot of Mohawks were on the ground when the planes hit,” says Lemmon.

For weeks after the terrorist attacks, Mohawks worked at Ground Zero, clearing wreckage.

“They feel very connected to their buildings. Their grandfathers and fathers built these buildings.”

Two small pieces from the World Trade Center, one shiny, the other rusty, were borrowed from the New York State Museum.

The rusty one is “part of the staircase that allowed people to get out,” Lemmon says, and visitors are allowed to touch it.

Twelve years after 9/11, Mohawk ironworkers were part of the crew that raised the 758-ton spire atop the new Freedom Tower, also called One World Trade Center, which at 1,776 feet is now the tallest structure in New York City. A photo of that crew is mounted near the fragments from the Twin Towers.

“We tell the story and leave it as something positive,” says Lemmon.

‘Walking the Steel: From Girder to Ground Zero’ 

WHERE: Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave
WHEN: Through Nov. 30. In April, museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 12-4 p.m. Sunday. Starting May 1, hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m.Tuesday through Saturday, 12-5 p.m. Sunday.
COST: $8 for adults, $6.50 for seniors and students age 12-17, $5 for children 5-12, free for younger kids
MORE INFO: iroquoismuseum.org, 296-8949, Facebook 

‘Walking the Steel’ events

  • Saturday, May 6: Meet artists and ironworkers at a reception for “Walking the Steel: From Girder to Ground Zero,” 1 to 4 p.m. At 2 p.m., guest speaker Reaghan Tarbell from Kahnawake will screen and discuss her film “To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey,” a 60-minute film that looks at Mohawk women in Little Caughnawaga, a Brooklyn community of 700 Mohawks that grew out of the ironworking boom of the 1950s.
  • Sunday, July 2 and Sunday, Aug. 13: Hardhat Design Workshop for ages 6 to adult, 1 to 3 p.m. Decorate your own personalized ironworking hard hat.
  • Saturday, July 15: “Tales From the Top,” Ironworking Skills Demo Day, 1 to 4 p.m. Illustrated informal talk about working in the high steel industry by third generation ironworker Barry Printup, Cayuga from Tuscarora.
  • Saturday, Aug. 12: “Tales from the Top,” Ironworking Skills Demo Day.  Rivet toss, competitive suitcase packing and other participatory activities developed and overseen by retired ironworker Mike Swamp and his son. Swamp is Mohawk and the organizer of the annual ironworking competition at Akwesasne which raises funds for families of those who were killed or injured on the steel.

Send your pictures

The Iroquois Indian Museum is looking for photos of ironworkers, both Native Americans and non-Native Americans, who live in the Capital Region.

The pictures will be hung on a wall as part of the exhibit “Walking the Steel: From Girder to Ground Zero.”

Please include some information with photos, such as name or names, approximate date, what kind of job the person was doing, union membership and name of bridge, building or other construction site.

Email your digital photos to [email protected].

Copies of original photos can be mailed to Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave, N.Y. 12092. Original photos cannot be returned.

Reach Gazette Reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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