North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
Walking the Steel: Generations of Ironworkers
Iroquois ironworkers, especially the Mohawks, are legendary for their
dizzying work in erecting skyscrapers and steel bridges, and
construction work attracted many Iroquois people to urban areas. Mohawks have
walked and worked on nearly all of New York's towering buildings,
including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and
Rockefeller Center. They came to Pittsburgh to work on the U.S.
Steel Building, the Civic Arena, and the Fort Pitt Bridge, among
Generations of Iroquois men have followed in this profession, which
began in 1886 with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway
bridge across the Saint Lawrence River. To obtain permission to build
the south abutment of the bridge on reservation land, the construction
company agreed to hire men from the Kahnawake Reservation.
Some Iroquois compare working the iron to another chapter in their
history. Once as hunters and warriors they left their homes for
extended periods to travel long distances, earning a living for
their families back home, making their personal reputations, and
Now Native people from all over the country are being trained as
ironworkers in the National Ironworkers Training Program for American
Indians. Walking the high steel earns a good wage, but it also is a
source of pride.
Coming to the City
Since the end of World War II there has been a large-scale movement
of American Indian people away from the reservations to urban areas.
Today more than sixty percent of the American Indian population live
The U.S. government encouraged the urban migration in the 1950s by developing a federal
relocation program. The aim was to attract Indian people to the cities,
where jobs were more readily available than on the reservations.
Thousands of Native people responded to the promise of "good jobs" and
"happy homes" as advertised in the governmental brochures.
For many, relocation was a failure. What they found, in general, were low-paying
jobs and high-cost rents. Although some stayed and built a life, many
returned to the reservations.
Unfamiliar challenges confront Native people who move to urban areas.
Life in the city often means living next door to non-Indian strangers.
It means trying to balance one's traditional cultural values with the often-conflicting
requirements for success in mainstream society.
Image 1: Pittsburgh Hard Hat
Richard Glazer-Danay (August 12, 1942- ), Corona, CA, Caughnawaga
Mohawk artist Richard Glazer-Danay created one of his special
hard hats for Pittsburgh by integrating icons of the city. A former
ironworker, Glazer-Danay has gained attention with his astounding
hard hats which mix references to Mohawk ironworking with popular
urban and tribal emblems.
Aluminum, enamel paints, plastic, commercial leather, steel, paper,
ink, nylon, adhesive; 36349-1
Image 2: T-Shirt
Harold (Jack) Johnson, Ohsweken, Ontario, Mohawk, 1992
This T-shirt compares the Native ironworker, renowned for his fearless
daring at great heights, with the profile of an eagle, the proud bird
that also soars aloft.
Commercial cotton, polyester, ink; L 74.0 x W 79.5; 35732-2