For six generations, Mohawk ironworkers have “walked the steel.”
Indigenous people began ironworking in the 19th century, when they were hired to build railroad bridges in Canada. They helped craft the New York City skyline, working on projects including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the World Trade Center.
That long tradition was in evidence on the North Campus Residential Expansion project, where a crew of mostly Indigenous ironworkers flew from their crane a cloth image of the Hiawatha wampum belt, which has been used to represent the sovereignty of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
On Dec. 2, the ironworkers presented the flag to representatives from the undergraduate organization Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell (NAISAC). The transfer acknowledged that they were creating buildings to house future generations of Native students at Cornell, that these buildings were constructed by Indigenous people and that all of it sits on Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'/Cayuga traditional territory.
“When we fly our flag on a job like this, we’re showing pride that Native Americans are here building this building,” said Brad Deere, foreman of a crew of ironworkers who are 90% indigenous, including Mohawk, Onondaga and Cree. “I wanted to present to the students this flag that has been flying over their campus the whole job, and they were very happy and proud to see it.
“This is Cayuga land, and for the Native American students and faculty, this is their home, so they can keep it here and it can stay with them here,” said Deere, who is Mohawk.
Colin Benedict ’21, a member of NAISAC, said he was excited when Deere reached out to the organization – not only because of the opportunity to receive and eventually display the flag, but because both of his own grandfathers were Mohawk ironworkers.
“It’s important to recognize the impact that Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee ironworkers have had across the U.S. and in Canada,” said Benedict, a student in the ILR School. “I drove by the worksite every time I went to campus to get tested, and it was comforting to see the Six Nations flag.”
Flying the Hiawatha belt recognizes that the project was taking place in the Haudenosaunee homeland, and that the Haudenosaunee nations are sovereign governments separate from New York state and the United States, said Kurt Jordan, associate professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“The transfer of the flag to the students is a way to demonstrate to the Cornell community that the ironworkers were there, and it will be preserved in a way so that future Cornell students will know that this occurred,” said Jordan, who is also director of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“The gesture was intergenerational, given that the Mohawk workers are working adults, and they are making a transfer to current students and those who are yet to come, even those who are unborn,” he said. “So I think this contained quite a bit of cultural resonance.”