For Kahnawa’kehró:non Lynn Beauvais, the ironworking industry is a proud tradition that has been part of the community for generations.
Born to a family of ironworkers in New York, Beauvais was among the attendees at the ironworkers’ history presentation at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre (KOR) last Thursday discussing the history of a small Indigenous community in Brooklyn named Little Caughnawaga.
She recalls how easily ironworkers’ families had adjusted to the city and lived in close areas gathered in downtown Brooklyn, similar to their ancestors who lived in clans in longhouses. “Those close quarters kept us safe and feeling at home, because it was surrounded by the other Mohawks,” said Beauvais.
“I like hearing old stories,” she said. “I’m very proud not just because it is my family but the men’s jobs, their work was amazing on the bridges and buildings, and not just in New York, but all over the world.”
At the same time, she believes the women from Kahnawake played an integral role in maintaining that tradition in Brooklyn’s thriving Indigenous community.
“The women always had something to do with that,” she said. “The community always depended on women. The women helped with the migration of our men to New York, they operated boarding houses, they took care of the guys who just started out there and moved to their boarding houses.
“My concern is that the trade is going to die out, because there are not many young recruits applying for apprenticeship programs such as Local 40,” she said. “It is not like before, when young men would start out under the guidance of their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, who were already accomplished ironworkers.”
The presentation at KOR was delivered by Allan Downey, who is Dakelh, Nak’azdli Whut’en, and an assistant professor in the department of history at McMaster University. He focused on the recognition of Haudenosaunee ironworkers, their skills and daring, renowned throughout North America, working on many of the iconic New York landmarks.
Specifically, Downey aimed to examine the formation of Indigenous communities in Brooklyn at the beginning 1920s and the “cultivation of Indigenous identities in urban space.”
Downey argues studying ironworkers’ livelihood is an example of resurgent history.
“Rather than focusing always on the colonial outside, we need to make sure that we are also focusing on the Indigenous inside. So the rebuilding and regeneration of things like our governance, our languages, our culture, and telling history like this may be playing a role in doing that type of work.”
He explained that by the 1920s, “Haudenosaunee families from Kahnawake and Akwesasne were relocating to downtown Brooklyn, where they established the community of Little Caughnawaga, the anglicized name of Kahnawake.” Within about 30 years, 700 Kanien’kehá:ka moved to Brooklyn and “helped form this new community which would thrive until the early 1970s.”
In his presentation, Downey focused mostly on Indigenous nationhood in urban spaces, mentioning the Immigration Act of 1924, the formation of the Six Nations defense league, 1927’s Paul Diabo case, the link between Brooklyn and Kahnawake, and self-determination in a big city, followed by the digital animation Rotinonhsión:ni Ironworkers.
“Despite the ironworkers’ significant influence, the neighborhood wasn’t limited to men,” Downey said, adding that Haudenosaunee women carved their own Indigenous town and helped in the community’s formation.
“Indigenous women from Kahnawake and other Haudenosaunee communities moved on their own accord to the Brooklyn neighborhood and searched for employment in factories, as nurses, schoolteachers, housemates, and significantly as boarding house operators,” he said.
According to him, being integrated in the new environment and industry, Indigenous workers kept articulating their Kanien’kehá:ka identity and Haudenosaunee self-determination.
Thomas Deer, organizer of the event, believes Downey’s research reflects an important part of Kahnawake history.
“It is an opportunity for community members to come together and share stories that are in their families,” he said. “Allan was very eager to showcase his animation and research work to the community, so we are happy to put on this event for Allan to share with the community.”