Native Americans are not often associated with New York and its dense, vertical landscape. With so many Indian nations pushed to America’s frontier in the 19e century, they typically appear in popular culture as inhabitants of the rural West, occupying large, open spaces filled with teepees, buffalos, and powwows. Yet the Mohawk Nation has deep roots in metropolitan New York City, where from the early 20’se century, Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, or Mohawk, blacksmiths helped build many iconic skyscrapers that dominate the Manhattan skyline.
These ‘Skywalkers’ have for generations traveled far and wide to work on the ‘high steel’, earning good wages to support their home communities such as Kahnawake, the Six Nations Reservation and Akwesasne in the upstate of New York and Southeastern Canada.
“It really has become a rite of passage,” said Lynn Beauvais, Kahnawake resident and grandmother of a fourth-generation metalworking family, in an interview with HISTORY.com. “The men were thrilled to be working away from home and discovering new locations. It was a group of brothers. But our men had always traveled – hunting, trading in furs, or as lumberjacks.
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Origins of the Mohawk Skywalkers
The Mohawk Skywalker tradition began in 1886 when daring Mohawk men from Kahnawake took up jobs to help build the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River, which borders their reserve near Montreal. Just as early European settlers observed Mohawks fearlessly walking across rivers on narrow logs, early ironworkers showed an unusual aptitude for climbing and working on steel beams. Having once hunted, trapped, and farmed in the forests of the northeast, the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, eventually took to steel in the booming metropolitan areas. These captivating Indigenous gangs spoke their native language at work while helping to build the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, and many other structures that shaped the New York skyline in the 1920s and 1930s. .
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Quebec Bridge disaster
The Skywalker tradition almost ended in 1907 when 33 Mohawk men from Kahnawake died in a collapse of the Quebec Bridge near Quebec. More than two-thirds of these men were married, leaving behind dozens of children and 24 widows. The resilient Skywalkers bounced back, but only after Mohawk women demanded not to work together in family groups. Instead, they would work in scattered and captivating gangs, lest another disaster wipe out such a large part of a family.
Beauvais said it was typical for women to kick things. “Women always chose the chiefs because they lived in matrilineal clans and watched the boys grow up,” she says. “They would choose leaders because they knew the characteristics of their boys from childhood to adulthood.”
What started as a well-paid vocation has grown into a tribal tradition as fathers and grandfathers taught their sons and grandsons to deal effectively with their fears. The Skywalker tradition has been passed down through many generations as the Mohawks worked high steel from Ontario to Chicago and Philadelphia, and as far away as San Francisco. They even created their own neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
Little Caughnawaga: Brooklyn’s Mohawk Community
In 1960, Atlantic Avenue and the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn were home to approximately 800 Mohawk ironworkers and their relatives. Many frequented the Wigwam Bar and attended a church run by Reverend David Munroe Cory, who even learned the Mohawk language to give sermons in their native language. Traders provided ingredients for favorite Mohawk recipes like bean cornbread. This enclave of Indigenous traders was centered around the Brooklyn Local 361 Ironworkers Union, largely made up of Kahnawake Mohawks. Elders of the Brooklyn neighborhood, known as Little Caughnawaga (an early spelling of Kahnawake), would remember the booming 1920s and 1930s when the Mohawk Skywalkers became a legend while building the country’s most vibrant metropolis. . Above the entrance to the Wigwam was a sign that read: “THE WORLD’S GREATEST IRON WORKERS PASS THESE DOORS.”
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The skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s were framed by steel columns, beams and beams assembled by four-man riveting bands. A man called a “heater” fired the rivets in a portable forge until they were red, throwing them at the “sticker” that caught it in a canister or glove. The “bucker-up” reinforced the rivet with a carriage bar while the “riveter” used a pneumatic hammer to push the shank of the rivet to secure the locking steel.
They took turns for each job, standing on narrow scaffolding hundreds of feet above the street. “It was always windy up there, and in the winter the men cleaned the steel beams of ice and snow before working on them,” said Beauvais. “In the old days there weren’t any safety lines and they weren’t wearing helmets. It was hard work, but they never spoke of the danger. Our men have always appreciated their work very much and were proud of it.
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Heyday of Skyscraper Building
Advances in metallurgy in the early 1900s had enabled architects to design much taller buildings using a hardened steel skeleton, secured by riveting strips. During the 1920s this led to a “race to the skies” as some of Gotham’s most remarkable skyscrapers began to take shape. The Mohawks worked on the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, an Art Deco masterpiece with stainless steel sides that was completed in 1930. It was the tallest building in the world until, less than a year later he was overtaken by the Empire State Building at 1,250 feet, also with the help of the Mohawks. Skywalkers then assisted on Rockefeller Plaza, which was completed in 1933.
Lynn Beauvais’ grandfather, Joseph Jocks, worked on several of them. He told her that during the Great Depression, men were in desperate need of jobs. “The men were waiting in the street for someone to fall to take their work. My grandmother walked for miles to find a day’s bread to eat, but they survived.
Beauvais was proud of his grandfather’s work on the Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world. “But when I got older, he told me there would be other taller buildings – the World Trade Center towers. I was sad that my Empire State Building was going to be outdone, but Joe Jocks also went to work on the commercial towers.
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Skywalkers at the World Trade Center
Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers went to work on the towers of the World Trade Center in the late 1960s. Beauvais watched the towers rise from his mother’s kitchen window in Brooklyn. Her grandmother said not to visit the site to see what the men are doing. “It will make you nervous,” she said – and it does. I went to lower Manhattan later to see my brother Kyle Beauvais. He was working five floors up, and I saw him walk outside the building to see me. I couldn’t bear to watch him.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks destroyed the towers of the World Trade Center, the Mohawks, familiar with steelworking and crane operations, traveled to Ground Zero to help with the cleanup, including members of the Beauvais family. “My brother Kyle left eight hours after the Towers fell. My grandfather had worked on the construction of the towers and had retired from that position. My brothers worked on their final demolition and sent them to be scrapped.
While a lot of knowledge has arisen over the years about the innate poise and fearlessness of the Mohawks at great heights, the Skywalkers say it’s more about controlling their fear and learning from elders how to do it. trust. Shore gangs have now been replaced with advanced technology, but the work is still dangerous. Ironworkers still die on the job with 35 to 50 deaths each year, most of them from falls. Many Mohawk ironworkers died on the job. Crosses of steel beams mark the graves of fallen Skywalkers at Kahnawake Cemetery.