The Iroquois Indian Museum has opened it’s season with a new exhibit, “Walking the Steel: From Girder to Ground Zero,” which will run through November 30. The Iroquois ironworker exhibit features artwork in various media that detail and interpret the long-standing cultural tradition of ironworking and its prominent role in Iroquois communities.
The exhibit also explores the response to 9/11 by the individuals who had no national obligation to aid in the recovery but selflessly did, and concludes with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) role in raising the 758-ton spire for the Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center in May 2013.
Haudenosaunee men first stepped onto the iron in the 1880’s. Back then Mohawks in Quebec were hired as teamsters to deliver iron and construction materials by horse drawn wagons and after unloading they would climb the iron structures looking to see what all the commotion was about. They were then hired as ironworkers and bridgeworkers because they seemed to be unaffected by heights.
When the Quebec Bridge fell in 1907, 33 of 76 workers killed were Mohawk, so after that incident the Mohawk women allowed their men to “boom out” to other jobs so that never again would their community suffer the loss of so many sons and fathers.
Describing the profession in 1900, a bridgeworker remarked, "Men who want to do it are rare, and men who can do it are even rarer." Over the last 30 years, Haudenosaunee women have been working iron as well.
By 1915, 90% of the male workforce in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake (near Montreal) was employed in union ironwork. During the building boom of the 1920’s – 1960’s, generations of Haudenosaunee commuted weekly (“booming out”) from home to urban work sites. Masters at their occupation, large numbers of Kanien'keha:ka (Mohawk) and other Iroquois were involved in the construction of iconic structures on the New York skyline such as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, United Nations Building, World Trade Center, Triborough and George Washington Bridges. Others worked on job sites in Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Today, the Haudenosaunee ironworking tradition continues to be a source of great pride and its central role expressed through community respect and the Iroquois visual arts.
At the opening reception which took place on May 6th, Haudenosaunee ironworkers were invited from near and far to attend. Special guest speaker was filmmaker Reaghan Tarbell from Kahnawake, who presented her documentary, “To Brooklyn and Back: A Mohawk Journey”. This 60-minute film examines the experience of Mohawk women in Little Caughnawaga, a Brooklyn community of 700 Mohawks that grew out of the ironworking boom of the 1950’s.
Represented in the Iroquois ironworker exhibit are ironworkers and artists: Julius Cook, Stacey Mitchell, Stan Hill Sr., Jordan Thompson and Richard Glazer Danay from Akwesasne; Stephen Brooks from Kahnawake/Akwesasne; Lu Ann Styres and Wayne Sky from Six Nations; Johnny Hemlock, Babe Hemlock, Mike Delisle, Sr., Kaniehtakeron “Geggs” Martin, John McGowan and Lindsay Delaronde from Kahnawake; Barry Printup and Rick Hill from Tuscarora; Sheila Escobar and Russell Cooke from Syracuse; Dennis Williams from Cattaraugus and others.
The Iroquois ironworker exhibit will have interesting and exciting features such as interactive stations where visitors young and old can try out ironworker skills. Programs will continue through the summer with hard hat design workshops and “Tales from the Top” Ironworking Skills Demo Days on Saturday, July 15 and Saturday, August 12.
The July program features 3rd generation ironworker Barry Printup, Cayuga from Tuscarora, who will demonstrate column climbing, skills and tools of the trade. The August program will feature rivet toss, competitive suitcase packing, and other participatory activities developed and overseen by retired Mohawk ironworker Mike Swamp and his son. Swamp is the organizer of the annual ironworking competition at Akwesasne which raises funds for families of those who were killed or injured on the steel.
The public is invited to see the exhibit at the Iroquois Indian Museum, located at Howes Cave, NY, 40 miles west of Albany, NY. For information about Walking the Steel, the interactive Iroquois ironworker skills programs and other upcoming museum events, visit the website or call at 518-296-8949.