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Celebrating Native American Workers on the High Steel - 2003-10-27

For generations, Mohawk and other Native Americans have built America's most famous buildings and bridges, including the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. They work the "high steel", a dangerous profession practiced high above the ground. The skill and craft of ironworking took center stage last month near Syracuse, New York in a sort of Ironworker Olympics.

On a grassy field in Canastota, New York, men in jeans and work shirts line up for the first event of the Ironworker Festival. It's the spud throw. Competitors try to hurl a wrench into a wooden target 6 meters away.

Mike Swamp runs the Ironworkers' Union office on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation in northern New York. "It's called an erection wrench. Ironworkers carry that around to make their bolts, to make the holes in the beam, and what we do here is simulate what happens if they do drop it to the ground, the guys will pick it up and send it back up in the air," he says.

About 100 ironworkers and their families are here from all over New York State to celebrate their trade and engage in a little friendly competition. A bigger International Ironworker Festival is hosted each year by Mackinaw City, Michigan. But this one, put on by the nearby Oneida Indian Nation, has a different focus. It highlights the contributions of Native Americans to the country's buildings and bridges.

Mike Swamp's son, Owen, grabs a handful of steel bolts for the bolt throw. He started ironworking five years ago. "It's in our blood, I guess. I dunno, my father was an ironworker, both my grandfathers were ironworkers. Part of our lives, y'know," he says.

The history of Mohawks on the high steel goes back to the 1880s. The French were building a bridge across the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. Mohawks on the job scrambled nimbly across steel beams dozens of meters above the river, reportedly without fear. Marilyn John, an Oneida Nation leader and wife of a retired ironworker, says after the turn of the century, men followed steel shipments to job sites in New York and other cities. "You had to have a living. You would follow the "red iron" [steel] wherever the jobs were, on the railroad or on trucks, you would follow the "red iron" and then you would try to get a job wherever that iron would stop," she says.

Their reputation grew, and soon Mohawks and other Native Americans were laying steel beams on the world's tallest buildings.

Peter Jacobs hunches over a couple of ropes at the knot-tying event. He says he's proud of the Native tradition in ironworking, adding that it's still among the best jobs men on reservations can get. But he doubts Mohawks are any less fearful of heights than other people. "There's white guys out there who are just as good," he says. "There's Native Americans from all over the country. There's African-Americans, Puerto Ricans. It's up to the individual themselves, how good they want to be. You have it or you don't have it."

Marilyn John jokes there may be something to the legend that Native Americans don't have acrophobia. "And they say, and I don't know if this is true, but there's something in the equilibrium in the nose. People make fun of Indian noses, that they're so large and stuff and that's what they say, there's something in the, I dunno," she says.

Seriously, though, she says it's important to honor ironworkers because of the toll it takes on them. "The profession does damage to you. Not everybody, but if you look around, there are a lot of guys limping, with canes and all that kind of stuff, 'cause the first thing to go are the knees," she says.

All day, a buzz surrounds the 9-meter column climb. When the event starts, a couple hundred people encircle a steel girder crowned with an American flag. One by one, men strap into a harness, scrape the dirt off the soles of their work boots, and scramble up.

Competitors ring a bell at the top and slide down. Some guys climb up in seconds like spidermen. Others slip and heave their way up.

The atmosphere is more supportive than competitive. Dick Oddo, a hulk of a man with a baby face, says one old-timer got teary-eyed because it was the first time he'd received public recognition in a career spanning decades. Mr. Oddo says while the events are fun, the honor and support are what matters in such a dangerous profession. "We all watch each other's back. A lot of tradition here. Million years of experience right here passed on from generation to generation. It's pride. That's all it is, just pride in the business. It feels good to be an ironworker," he says.