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First Nations, French Canadians & Acadians

Mohawks at Home on “High Iron” | Daibo (Fallen Sky), Jocks


Mohawks at Home on “High Iron” by Edward Nickerson

New York


The Mohawk Indian stood perched high above the ground, his golden brown skin shining in the morning sun, his black eyes scanning the horizon like a hunter in search of game. Then he spoke: Hand me that wrench, will you?”

The time – any day of the week. The place – midtown Manhattan. The Indian? It could have been Mike Daibo, better known among the Mohawks as Tironionie or “Fallen Sky”.

Mike wears a plastic helmet, not a set of feathers, and carried a lunch pail, not a tomahawk.

His lofty perch is a girder of the new 52-story Union Carbide building he and a number of his fellow Mohawks are helping to construct.

About 500 other Mohawks live in New York City with Mike,a nd almost all who are able spend their working lives as he does: riveting steel and swinging heavy girders into place at dizzying heights, building skyscrapers and bridges. High iron work, they call it.

When Manhattan was only wooded island on an unknown shore, Mike’s tribal forefathers ranged upstate New York as part of the great five nation – Ilater six) – federation known as the Iroquois.

New Kind of Forest

Now that Manhattan is forested with skyscrapers instead of oaks and maples, these same Mohawks look about them and see proof everywhere of their contribution to its growth. They helped put up the RCA Building, the famous Empire State Building, the United Nations Secretariat Building and they spanned the Hudson with the George Washington Brige. The list could go on and on.

No Mohawk might ever have bucked a rivet to this day were it not for the fact that their reservation lies near St. Lawrence River in a well-travled part of eastern Canada.

One day in 1886, contractors approached the Mohawks with a proposition. They wanted to span the St. Lawrence near Montreal and offered the Mohawks first crack at jobs on the project in return for rights to the necessary land. It was a deal – the Indians wanted the work and the bridge builders were glad not to have to import a lot of sailors from coastal cities. In those days, sailors were among the few who had the nerve to work at high altitudes.

As the bridge went up, the ol-time white riveters would often discover Mohawk labourers peering curiously over their shoulders – balanced easily on narrow girders high above the river. By the time the bridge was built, many of the Indians had learned riveting and other skills.

It was only natural that when there were other high iron jobs to be done, the Mohawks should come along and do them. When New York City had its skyscraper boom int the 1920s, a number of Indians settled down here to live.

Now the Mohawks, much intermarried with whites, live simply – about as other people of their income level live in Brooklyn where most of them settled.

Indian Lore Disappearing

The older Indians, like Tom Jocks, for instance, speak Iroquois on the job. Tom has an Indian name meaning “grapevine”” But his tow sons, Louis and John, aged 21 and 24 don’t even remember their tribal names and know very little Iroquois.

The Jocks family is a good example of how the tradition of working high iron is passed on while the old Indian language and close connections with the reservation begin to fall by the wayside.

The Mohawks aren’t the only high iron men. They are usually only a small percentage of those on any given job, but they seem to have a natural affinity for the work.

They aren’t indifferent to danger, but height doesn’t seem to phase them much.

Why? No one has ever given a satisfactory answer. Some say there is no mysterious altitude fearlessness – that the Mohawks are iron workers today because it’s a good job and their forefathers happened to get started in that line.

But at least one early historian indicates that something more that this is involved. John Lawson, and English surveyor and traveler in America, wrote in 1714 of the Indians of the Iroquois group:

“They will walk over deep brooks, and creeks, on the smallest poles, and that without any fear or concern. Nay, an Indian will walk on the ridge of a barn or house and look down the gable end, and spit upon the ground, as unconcerned as if he was walking on terra firm.”


Lewiston Evening Journal – Aug 7, 1958


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July 27, 2019 - Posted by | . | , ,

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