Mohawk ironworkers have been honoured by the United States Mint with a $1 silver coin released in May.
Although the coin is strictly American issue, Mohawk ironworkers have traditionally lived on both sides of the present-day border. The Kahnawake Mohawk Territory is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across from Montreal. The territory of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne straddles the St. Lawrence and the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York State.
The history of Mohawk "skywalkers" dates back to 1886 when Canada’s Dominion Bridge Company built a cantilevered bridge over the St. Lawrence River, connecting Montreal with the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve. Mohawk labourers hired to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway project impressed management with their agility on the high iron and were soon trained as ironworkers.
Aboriginal workers from the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mohawk community of Akwesasne soon contributed their skills to the ironworker trade, making their mark throughout the United States and Canada. In New York City they worked in large numbers on the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations Building and the World Trade Center. They also worked on the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver. At one point, one in four men from Akwesasne worked in high-rise construction.
Dozens of Mohawk ironworkers also volunteered to remove debris following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The "9-11" flag displayed at the 2004 Winter Olympics was recovered from the lobby of Six World Trade Center by a Mohawk worker from Akwesasne the day following the attack. First Nation ironworkers also helped to rivet the spire on top of One World Trade Centre in 2013.
Tom Thomas is the business manager for Ironworkers Local Union #440 in Utica, N.Y. representing about 350 members of which more than 200 are Mohawk ironworkers. He reviewed early drawings of the commemorative coin, which depicts a Mohawk ironworker reaching for an I-beam swinging into position.
"The tribe back home sent us the drawing and asked us what we liked about it and whether we thought there should be some changes," says Thomas.
"The first drawing featured an ironworker with eagle feathers on his hard hat. I’ve been an ironworker for 35 years and I’ve never met a native ironworker who wore feathers. It would not only be a welding flash fire hazard, but it isn’t something you would wear lightly. The eagle is a ceremonial bird and our protector. If you’re wearing eagle feathers, obviously an eagle has died, so it’s something solemn."
Thomas also asked that the Mohawk Warrior Society flag be removed from the worker’s jacket because it lacked context, and requested that the cuffs of the worker’s gloves be shortened so they looked less like welding gloves.
"We presented our side of it and it looks like they listened," he says.
While tradition suggests that Mohawk ironworkers are immune to the fear of heights, Thomas says there’s no truth to the idea.
"Everybody fears heights and it’s windy up there," he says. "It’s a matter of courage, balance, and looking where you’re walking, combined with thorough safety training."
Thomas notes that the ironworker trade continues to attract new applicants from the Mohawk community. Local members are currently at work in New York, Maine and as far afield as Saskatchewan.
"We travel wherever there’s work," he says. "The business managers at the various locals are like a brotherhood, calling on each other when we need workers."
While New York continues to attract Mohawk ironworkers, big city living can be a challenge.
"The pay is good, but in New York, the cost of living is expensive," says Thomas.
"It costs $25 for tolls and $35 just to park a truck. Workers share apartments or stay in hotels in Jersey. But one of the hardest parts of working in New York is just getting back to Akwesasne on the weekend. It can take four hours just to get out of the city on a Friday."