NMAI's "Booming Out" shows towering presence of Mohawks

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NEW YORK CITY ? Mohawk ironworkers returned to the public eye in this devastated city after the terror of September 11. As eye-level witnesses to the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and prominent figures in the rescue and clean-up efforts, the high-steel workers from the northern reservations refurbished a name already deeply bound with the New York skyline.

A grateful city is now honoring the Mohawks with a series of public ceremonials and the new photography exhibit "Booming Out: Mohawk Ironworkers Build New York" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center through October 15.

The 67 photographs focus on the ironworkers from two Mohawk communities, Akwesasne, which straddles Ontario, Quebec and New York State in two reservations, and Kahnawake, near Montreal. Photojournalists and Mohawk workers themselves capture the breath-taking scenes of construction on the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, Rockefeller Center, and the World Trade Center.

Ironworker Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvais (Kahanwake Mohawk), who worked at the World Trade Center site, observed to the Smithsonian: "A lot of people think Mohawks aren't afraid of heights; that's not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is we deal with it better. We also have the experience of the old-timers to follow and the responsibility to lead the younger guys. There's pride in walking iron."

High steel has been a Mohawk tradition for more than a century. The exhibit title "Booming out" is a Mohawk term describing the exodus of workers from the northern reserves to worksites throughout the country. The migrations continue, with long commutes on weekends to reservation homes.

W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), the NMAI director, said the museum "is proud and privileged to present these images.

"This is an inspiring and important story that has particular immediacy and relevance because the George Gustav Heye Center, which is a cultural landmark in lower Manhattan, is located just blocks from Ground Zero."

Public programs will accompany the exhibit in coming months. On May 18 to 19, a Children's Festival will feature steelworker and traditional dancer Jerry McDonald, who will discuss ironworking in a session called "Tools of the Trade." On June 7 and 8, Kanatakta (Mohawk), the curator of the exhibit, will lead an in-depth gallery program on the history of the ironworkers in his community of Kahnawake.

Earlier this spring, McDonald starred in "Eagle Dance," a performance piece honoring the ironworkers presented by Lotus Music & Dance and introduced by Mohawk elder Tom Porter, spiritual leader of the Kanatsiohareke Community. The piece was originally scheduled for Sept. 22, 2001, but was postponed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.