What's the deal with the historical hiring of Native American Indians to work on skyscrapers? Have they all truly been blessed with a lack of fear of heights? --Robert Wallman, New York
Nah, it's the warrior ethic. Really. But first we'd better have a little background. It's not just any American Indian who goes into ironwork, it's mostly Iroquois, specifically Mohawks from the Kahnawake reservation near Montreal.
The Mohawks got into the business by happenstance. In 1886 a Canadian company was building a railroad bridge over the Saint Lawrence River near the Kahnawake reservation. The company hired a number of Mohawks as day laborers but found they loved to climb around on the ironwork without any apparent fear of heights. Since it was difficult to find men with the moxie for high work, the company decided to try an Indian crew. "We picked out some and gave them a little training, and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs," a company official later wrote. Mohawks helped build bridges from then on.
In 1907, 96 men were killed when a span of the Quebec Bridge collapsed during construction; 35 of them were Indians from Kahnawake. The dead were buried in the Kahnawake cemetery under crosses made of steel beams. Your average construction worker might have decided it was time to go into a safer line of work, but not the Mohawks. From that day forward every young male on the reservation was convinced that risking your neck on steel was the coolest calling this world could offer.
The Mohawks eventually branched out from bridges into general high steel construction, including office buildings. During the late 1920s a number of Kahnawake crews started working on skyscrapers in New York, and they've been a fixture of the city's construction scene ever since. Some crews--the members are often related to one another--spend the weekends on the reservation and drive down to New York for the week; others live in Brooklyn. But they'll travel anywhere if there's steel to climb.
Do the Mohawks really have no fear of heights? Their employers think so, and the Indians themselves like to make out as though dancing on some I beam 600 feet in the air is no more disruptive to their peace of mind than stepping off a curb. Edmund Wilson, who wrote several essays about the Iroquois for the New Yorker in the 1950s, quoted one modest steel jockey's claim that he had "an uncanny sense of balance" and attributed their skill to "their earlier life, from threading forests and scaling mountains, from canoeing in streams rough with rapids. A very important factor is undoubtedly their habit, in walking, of putting one foot in front of the other, instead of straddling, as we seem to them to do. They do not need to make an effort in walking a narrow beam."
Far be it from me to make light of this portrait of the noble red man, but there may be a simpler explanation: they do it because it's macho. Evidence on this point comes to us from anthropologist Morris Freilich, who published a solemn academic study on the subject in 1958. Ordinarily, Cecil doesn't take this kind of thing too seriously but in this instance was impressed by Freilich's impeccable research methodology: he spent his nights getting schnockered with the Mohawks at their favorite bar in Brooklyn.
One night when they were all drunk the Indians admitted they were scared fecal-matter-less while iron hopping; they just didn't admit it because of the above-mentioned warrior ethic. (They didn't actually say "warrior ethic," of course; that was Freilich's take on it.) Freilich pointed out in his article that the Iroquois warrior tradition boiled down to going off with the boys on an expedition to perform insane feats of bravery and raise hell, then coming home and boasting about your exploits. The warpath being no longer socially acceptable, steelwork was the next best thing. Sure, it's one of those silly male things. But I'd say it beats joining the men's movement and pounding a drum.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.