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Documentary Traces Brooklyn's Mohawk Ironworkers

Reaghan Tarbell never set out to be a New Yorker, or a filmmaker, for that matter.

But eight years ago, this descendant of Mohawk ironworkers moved to New York from the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal. She came to work in the Film and Video Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. In the city, she found she had questions she'd never asked about the sojourns of her grandparents in a Brooklyn neighborhood called Little Caughnawaga.

Little Caughnawaga, as Tarbell explained in her 2008 documentary, To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey, was a small neighborhood that was home in the 1950s to as many as 700 Mohawks, making it the largest Mohawk settlement outside of Canada.

"It is my family story," she said. "When I first moved here, my experience was so different than what I had heard about, how my whole community was here, your aunties, sisters, all lived here within 10 square blocks."

Tarbell's documentary, which premiered in 2008 and was shown on PBS in 2009, is popular at festivals around the U.S. and Canada. It has brought back a piece of Brooklyn's diverse history, as noted by the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Public Library.

On December 3, the documentary was shown at the Brooklyn Film and Arts Festival, drawing an audience that was fascinated by the subject, said festival director Aziz Rahman.

"Now there is almost a mythology about this Mohawk community in Brooklyn," he said. "Before now there has not been an effort to document this neighborhood."

The documentary starts with the tragic 1907 collapse of a bridge under construction near the Kahnawake Reserve that killed 75 steelworkers, including 33 Kahnawake Mohawks. After that, the Kahnawake discouraged the steelworkers from all working on one job, and the families of steelworkers began moving to New York, where so many projects were being built that the men could take their pick of different jobs. And in this distant city, they preserved their Kahnawake community and culture.

While the story of Mohawk ironworking men is iconic, this documentary tells the story of the women like Tarbell's grandmother, Ida Meloche, who came to Brooklyn at age 16 in search of work and the opportunity she dreamed of in New York City. Like other Mohawk women, she would live and work, raise a family and keep traditions alive in Little Caughnawaga during the long hours while the community's men built the Manhattan skyline.

In 2004, Tarbell took a month off from work to investigate her grandmother's story. Over the next two years she researched and wrote, and finally filmed interviews with her relatives. In time she decided to include herself, the researcher and filmmaker, in the storyline, as she realized the parallels between her grandparents' move to New York for opportunities and her own move—going but always keeping ties at home. "I had to have my voice come through," she said, "if I was going to find their voice."

The year, 2007, that she spent in putting the documentary together was the most rewarding and challenging of her life.

For other filmmakers who want to tell a family story, Tarbell advises that they start interviewing and writing, if only their thoughts about those interviews. "Maybe it won't make it into the film, but at least you will have it recorded," she said. As a filmmaker, knowing how many years a documentary can take, she said the early research can tell whether the project is going to be worth the investment of time and money.

Since 2008, Tarbell has directed a documentary on the reindeer-herding culture and language of Norway's Sami people, which thrives despite past government-imposed assimilation. "Sami" is an episode in Mushkeg Media's Finding Our Talk series. Mushkeg Media also produced "To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey."

Like her family before her, Tarbell's residence in Brooklyn has also, at least through her film, become a path back to Kahnawake.

"When I moved here this was a temporary home for me," she said of New York. "Most of the people who lived in Little Caughnawaga came expecting it to be temporary too. Now I have many have friendships and colleagues, and it feels a lot more like home than I ever expected."