By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - The thought of walking on narrow steel beams hundreds of feet above the ground while connecting the nuts and bolts of a modern high-rise building is enough to induce an anxiety attack in most people.
Yet, beginning in the late 19th century, generations of Mohawk ironworkers left their homelands in a weekly migration to New York City where they did just that - risking their lives high in the sky to create some of the most famous buildings and bridges in the city skyline.
A current exhibition at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, called ''Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York,'' pays homage to these courageous modern-day ''men of steel'' and the dangerous work they did building the most famous 20th century architectural icons, including the United Nations, the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, the World Trade Center and the George Washington Bridge.
The exhibition was developed by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center and organized for travel by the Smithsonian's Institution of Traveling Exhibition Service. The show has been on the road since September 2004 and has so far visited New York, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and South Carolina.
The exhibition consists of 67 black-and-white and color photographs that document six generations of ironworkers from two Mohawk communities: Akwasasne, which straddles Ontario, Quebec and New York state, and Kahnawake, near Montreal.
The communities are part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy comprising the Six Nations of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.
The exhibition is set up in a long high-ceiling gallery with enough space to stand back for a good view of the large-scale images. The photos are arranged in sections: ''Crossing Borders/A Foothold in New York''; Danger of the Job''; ''Mohawks in Brooklyn''; ''Building Landmarks''; ''Booming Out''; and ''Remembering the World Trade Center.''
Text panels and quotations accompany the photos. The quotations attest to the paradoxical nature of their work, which is dangerous, exhilarating and a source of great pride.
Many of the photographs were taken by the workers themselves and have the spontaneous quality of a snapshot. Often the shots leave the viewer wondering where the photographer stood to take the picture.
Included in the exhibition is sculpture by Darryl Pronovost, Mohawk of Kahnawake, of the World Trade Center towers made from metal collected at the destroyed buildings by Mohawk steelworkers, some of whom participated not only in building the World Trade Center, but also in the rescue and cleanup operations there.
An easily overlooked element of the exhibition is an audio presentation of the voices of ironworkers and their wives, that plays on a loop from a speaker perched high on a wall as one enters the gallery. It would be a huge mistake not to stop and listen to these eloquent voices telling stories of the rhythms of their lives, from the sad Sunday night when the men traveled back to work to the excitement of Friday nights when they returned home for the weekend.
''You're taking care of the bills, taking care of the kids, making the car payments. My husband didn't even know how to write a check because he was never there to do it. I took care of everything,'' a woman from Kahnawake says.
Work was so abundant in New York in the 1930s that a community of around 800 Mohawk ironworkers and their families took root in Brooklyn. By the 1960s, the community dispersed.
''There's so much work here [in New York], you gotta take it. You don't want to leave your family, your own home and everything that goes with it; sleeping in your own bed; getting to cut your grass; your friends; sitting on the porch relaxing; going to the quarry for a swim; walking down the road; people smile and say, 'Hello! Hello!' - home,'' a man's voice says.
''In this house on Saturday, I generally cook,'' the woman from Kahnawake said. ''I'll make something that the boys will like. Like this weekend I'll make cornbread and steak, and they'll eat and they'll go to sleep around seven o'clock. I kiss him goodbye when he goes down and then he'll wake around midnight. I don't even notice he's gone.''
The men drove five or six hours back to the work site.
''A lot of times it's really quiet in the car,'' a man says. ''I know how I am on Sunday afternoon. You get lonesome before you even leave. It's hard because you're leaving again. You just have to fight it. This has been going on for generations.''
The 1907 tragedy of the Quebec Bridge over the St. Lawrence River, where 75 ironworkers including 33 Mohawks were killed instantly, is still a living memory.
''The women got together and told the men they never wanted a large group of men to work together on a job again in case something like that happens again. But they do it anyway,'' the woman from Kahnawake said.
Death is always a possibility, one of the ironworkers says on the audio.
''If a man falls to his death, you leave the job for a day. More often than not, sitting in the bar, everybody's quiet; nobody jokes; no laughing; you have a couple of beers ... Next day you go to work, everybody's over-cautious. It wasn't your time to go, but it brings back a very harsh reality of ironworking,'' he said.
Some of the jobs ''were all Mohawk,'' another man said. ''Everybody spoke Mohawk. It was nice to hear the old-timers talking and laughing, you know. Myself, I don't speak it too good. Everybody was so worried about the way society was going, that one day the governor would come up to you and say, 'Nobody speak Mohawk no more. There's no more Indians no more.' That's what my mother told me.''
The Mashantucket Pequot Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (800) 411-9671 or visit www.pequotmuseum.org.