Native Americans aren’t often associated with New York City and its dense, vertical landscape. With so many Indian nations pushed to America’s frontier in the 19th century, they usually appear in popular culture as denizens of the rural West, occupying wide open spaces replete with tipis, buffalo and pow wows. Yet the Mohawk Nation has deep roots in metropolitan New York City—where, beginning in the early 20th century, Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, or Mohawk, ironworkers contributed to building many of the iconic skyscrapers that dominate the Manhattan skyline.
These “Skywalkers” have for generations travelled far and wide to work on the “high steel,” bringing back good wages to support their home communities such as Kahnawake, Six Nations Reserve and Akwesasne in northern New York State and southeastern Canada.
“It became a rite of passage really,” said Lynn Beauvais, a Kahnawake resident and grandmother from a fourth-generation ironworker family, in an interview with HISTORY.com. “The men were thrilled to be working away from home and seeing new sights. They were a band of brothers. But our men had always traveled—for the hunt, the fur trade or as lumber men.”
READ MORE: Native American History Timeline
Origins of the Mohawk Skywalkers
The Mohawk Skywalker tradition began in 1886 when some daring Mohawk men from Kahnawake took jobs helping build the Victoria Bridge across the St. Lawrence River, which borders their reserve near Montreal. Just as early European settlers had observed Mohawks walking fearlessly across rivers on narrow logs, early ironworkers showed an unusual aptitude for climbing and working on steel beams. Having once hunted, trapped and farmed throughout the northeast woodlands, the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, eventually took to the high steel in burgeoning metropolitan areas. These indigenous riveting gangs spoke their native languages on the job while helping to build the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza and many other structures that shaped the New York City skyline in the 1920s and 1930s.
Quebec Bridge Disaster
The Skywalker tradition nearly came to an end in 1907 when 33 Mohawk men from Kahnawake died during a collapse of the Quebec Bridge near Quebec City. More than two-thirds of these men were married, leaving behind dozens of children and 24 widows. The resilient Skywalkers rebounded, but only after Mohawk women demanded that they not work together in family groups. They would instead work in dispersed riveting gangs, lest another disaster wipe out such a wide swath of one family.
Beauvais said it was typical for women to call the shots. “Women always chose the chiefs because they lived in matrilineal clans and saw the boys grow up,” she said. “They would choose leaders because they knew about their boys’ characteristics from infancy to manhood.”
What began as a high-paying vocation became a tribal tradition as fathers and grandfathers taught their sons and grandsons to handle their fears effectively. The Skywalker tradition was passed down for many generations as Mohawks worked the high steel from Ontario to Chicago and Philadelphia, and as far away as San Francisco. They even established a neighborhood of their own in Brooklyn, New York.
Little Caughnawaga: Brooklyn’s Mohawk Community
By 1960 Atlantic Avenue and the Boerum Hill area of Brooklyn was home to about 800 Mohawk ironworkers and their relatives. Many frequented the Wigwam Bar and attended a church run by Rev. David Munroe Cory, who even learned the Mohawk language to give sermons in their native tongue. Storekeepers supplied ingredients for favorite Mohawk recipes like cornbread with beans. This enclave of indigenous tradesmen centered around the Brooklyn Local 361 Ironworkers’ Union, made up largely of Kahnawake Mohawks. Old-timers in the Brooklyn neighborhood, known as Little Caughnawaga (an early spelling of Kahnawake), would recall the booming 1920s and 1930s when the Mohawk Skywalkers became legend while building the nation’s most bustling metropolis. Above the entrance to the Wigwam was a sign that read, “THE GREATEST IRONWORKERS IN THE WORLD PASS THROUGH THESE DOORS.”
Skyscrapers of the ’20s and ’30s were framed with steel columns, beams and girders fitted together by four-man riveting gangs. One man called a “heater” fired the rivets in a portable forge until they were red-hot, tossing them to the “sticker-in” who caught it in a metal can or glove. The “bucker-up” braced the rivet with a dolly bar while the “riveter” used a pneumatic hammer to mushroom out the rivet stem to secure the locking steel.
They took turns on each job while standing on narrow scaffolding hundreds of feet above the street. “It was always windy up there, and in winter the men cleaned off the steel beams of ice and snow before working on them,” Beauvais said. “In the old days there were no safety lines, and they didn’t wear helmets. It was hard work, but they never talked about the danger. Our men have always really enjoyed their work and were proud of it.”
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Heyday of Skyscraper Building
Advances in metallurgy during the early 1900s had made it possible for architects to design much taller buildings using a skeleton of hardened steel, fastened by riveting gangs. During the 1920s, this led to a “race to the sky” as some of the most notable skyscrapers in Gotham began to take shape. Mohawks worked on the 1,046-foot Chrysler Building, a stainless-steel-sided Art Deco masterpiece that was completed in 1930. It was the tallest building in the world until, less than a year later, it was surpassed by the Empire State Building at 1,250 feet, also with the help of Mohawks. Skywalkers then helped out on Rockefeller Plaza, which was finished in 1933.
Lynn Beauvais’ grandfather Joseph Jocks worked on several of them. He told her that during the Great Depression men were desperate for jobs. “Men would wait in the street for someone to fall off so they could take their job. My grandmother would walk miles to find day-old bread to eat, but they survived.”
Beauvais was proud of her grandfather’s work on the Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world. “But when I got older, he told me there were going to be other buildings even taller—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 Trade Towers.”
Skywalkers at the World Trade Center
Hundreds of Mohawk ironworkers went to work on the World Trade Center towers in the late 1960s. Beauvais watched the towers rise from her mother’s kitchen window in Brooklyn. Her grandmother said not to visit the job site to see what the men do. “‘It’ll make you nervous,’ she said—and it does. I went to lower Manhattan later to see my brother Kyle Beauvais. He was working five stories up, and I saw him walking on the outside of the building to come see me. I couldn’t stand to watch him.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center towers, Mohawks, familiar with steel work and crane operations, went to Ground Zero to help clean up—including members of the Beauvais family. “My brother Kyle went in eight hours after the towers came down. My grandfather had worked on the construction of the towers and retired on that job. My brothers worked on their final demolition and sent them to the scrapyard.”
Although much lore has arisen over years about the Mohawk’s innate balance and fearlessness at great heights, Skywalkers say it is more a matter of controlling their fear and learning from elders how to trust one another. The riveting gangs have now been replaced with advanced technology, but the work is still dangerous. Ironworkers still die on the job at a rate of 35 to 50 fatalities each year—most of them from falls. Many Mohawk ironworkers have fallen to their deaths while on the job. Steel girder crosses mark the graves of fallen Skywalkers in the Kahnawake cemetery.