Sample text for Skywalkers : Mohawk ironworkers build the city / David Weitzman.
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PEOPLE OF THE FLINT
“We had a reputation as rivermen and ironworking was a different kind of work. We didn’t have the tools or traditional skills to fall back on—it was our introduction to the industrial age.”
—Conway Jocks, Kannawake ironworker
To be accurate, they are not really “Mohawks.” The Indians of southern New England called the tribe the Mohowawogs, which means “man-eaters”—and by all accounts they did eat some of their captives taken in war. Early Dutch and English explorers heard the word as “Mohawks.” The tribe calls themselves the Kanien’ke;haka—People of the Flint. (The “k” is pronounced like our “g”.) But for 400 years now, since the arrival of the Europeans, “Mohawks” is what they have been called, and though they may not refer to themselves that way, they do not mind if others do.
The origins of the people are lost in time, but the plentiful archaeological record around upstate New York goes back at least 4,000 years. By some estimates, ancestors of modern-day Mohawks lived on the same land as long as 12,000 years ago.
From the beginning, the Mohawks were a people who fostered cooperation and community effort. They were leaders in establishing the League of the Iroquois, a confederation of Indian nations in the New York region founded sometime in the 1500s to maintain peace among themselves and with surrounding nations. The names of the original Five Nations describe the lands each inhabited as well as their responsibilities as peacekeepers: Onöndowága (Seneca), People of the Great Hill, and Keepers of the Western Door; Guyohkohnyo (Cayuga), People of the Mucky Land; Onöñda’gega (Onondaga), People of the Mountains; Onyota’a:ka (Oneida), People of the Granite; and Kanien’ke;haka (Mohawk), People of the Flint, and Keepers of the Eastern Door. Later, the Tuscarora, Shirt Wearing People, were invited to join the confederation, making it Six Nations. The coming together of six nations to form a confederation in the spirit of peace and mutual protection at this early date was, in the view of Dr. Robert Muller, an Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, “perhaps the oldest effort for disarmament in world history.”
So successful were the laws and treaties that held together the Grand Council of the United Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) that that many of its ideas were adopted by America’s founding fathers. But not all of them; in some ways the laws of the Iroquois Confederacy were surprisingly progressive when compared to the laws of the United States. While Iroquois women from earliest times participated at all levels of the government, from the village councils up to the Grand Council, the Constitution did not even give American women the right to vote. It was well over a century before women were granted this right. And even then, many decades passed before American women were elected to office.
Americans were impressed not only with Mohawk institutions but also their respectful attitude toward each other. Joseph Bloomfield, a soldier of the Revolution and, later, Governor of New Jersey, left this account of the Mohawks meeting in council.
The Character of the Indians is striking. They are grave even to sadness, upon any serious Occasion; observant of those in Company, respectful to the old, of a temper cool and deliberate, by which they are never in haste to speak before they have thought well on the matter & are sure the person who spoke before them has finished all he had to say.
Nothing is more edifying than their behavior in their public Councils & Assemblies; every man there is heard in his turn, According to his Years, Wisdom, or service to his Country, have ranked him. Not a Word, not a Whisper, not a murmur is heard from the rest, whilst He speaks; no indecent condemnation, no ill-timed applause.
Like most ancient cultures, the Mohawks had no formal system of writing. Their history and traditions were passed down from generation to generation through the spoken word. During the winter months, as storms raged outside, the village storyteller would gather the children around the warmth of the longhouse fire and, accompanied by the crackling, sputtering flames and the flickering shadows, entertain them with exciting tales of their ancestors. The children sat entranced as the storyteller’s voice went from a whisper to shouts and cries. With flailing arms and great leaps, he would reenact battles of men and gods and then, just as suddenly, drop to an almost inaudible hush again. As the children grew up, sitting winter after winter around the storyteller’s fire, they learned about the Great Spirit and the origins of the people, animals, plants, and the world itself. They learned their customs, proper behavior, and their eventual roles as men and women. And they were expected to learn all this by heart so that they could tell the stories to their children. Each storyteller made the tales his own and, as times changed, so did the stories.
Life changed drastically with the arrival of the Europeans. Many Mohawks were converted to Christianity, and the priests forbade them to tell their creation stories, even to speak their own language. Today, the storytellers are gone, and many of their tales forgotten. All that is left of that history are bits and fragments collected many years ago from the distant memories of the elderly.
Most of what we do know about traditional Mohawk life comes down to us in the journals of Dutch explorers who traveled through their lands in the 1600s and 1700s. Among them were keen observers who were curious about the native peoples they encountered. They were able to overcome their European prejudices and leave detailed, accurate, and candid accounts of what they saw and experienced. These accounts are particularly valuable because they are a record of life in the Mohawk villages before the intrusion of the Europeans. At that time, Kanienke, the Land of the Flint, extended from the St. Lawrence River in the north to the Mohawk River in the south, and from the Hudson River Valley and Lake Champlain west all the way to the Great Lakes—in all, more than 6 million acres.
THE LONGHOUSE PEOPLE
The Iroquois were collectively known as the Haudenosaunee (sometimes written Hootenosonni), “they build longhouses,” and first impressions of encounters with the Mohawks always included descriptions of the villages and massive buildings where they lived. Europeans were so impressed by the longhouses that they referred to them as “castles.” Adding to their impressive size was their defensive placement high up on palisades. A Dutch explorer, Adriaen Cornelissen van der Donck, described his visit to a Mohawk settlement in 1634:
We came into their first castle that stood on a high hill. There were 36 houses, row on row in the manner of streets, so that we could easily pass through. These houses are constructed and covered with the bark of trees, and are mostly flat above. Some are 100, 90, or 80 steps long; 22 or 23 feet high. There were many wooden gables on the houses that were painted with all sorts of animals. In each house there were four, five, or six places for fires and cooking. There were also some interior doors made of split planks furnished with iron hinges. In some houses we also saw ironwork: iron chains, bolts, harrow teeth, iron hoops, spikes. Most of the people were out hunting for bear and deer. These houses were full of grain that they call onesti and we corn; indeed, some held 300 or 400 skipples [bushels]. We ate here many baked and boiled pumpkins that they call anonsira.
The size and shape of each longhouse reflected the size and shape of the Mohawk family that lived there. Theirs was a matrilineal society in which families were linked through the women. When a child was born, he or she became part of the mother’s clan and the center of attention of a large, extended family. At the head of each clan—Bear, Wolf, or Turtle—was the clan mother, usually the oldest woman, and her council, made up of women of all ages. It’s still that way today. The clan mother makes all the important decisions. One of her biggest responsibilities is to choose the male leader, called “Caretaker of the Peace,” who, in turn, represents the clan in the government of the Six Nations. The clan mother also gives names to the newborn children, a tradition described in this story by anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser:
She was born in a bark house. Her mother, Rising-sun, was surprised as she looked at the little face. The child was the image of her great-grandmother, Rising-sun’s mother’s mother, whom she had often seen when she herself was a little girl. Hanging-flower had been a great medicine woman in her day, and the fame of her art had spread far and wide.
Soon after this, when Rising-sun had regained her health and vigor, she called on Clear-as-a-brook, Keeper of the Names of the Bear Clan, to which Rising-sun belonged. From her the mother learned that another Hanging-flower, a remote relative of Rising-sun, of whom she remembered having heard, had recently died and that her name had been “put away in a box.” The mother knew now that nothing stood in the way of the realization of her desire: Hanging-flower was to be the name of the little girl.
All the members of the clan—parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents—lived together in a longhouse. But the Mohawks didn’t use these kinship terms. To a child growing up among an extended family, every woman in the longhouse was “mother,” every man was “father,” and all the children were “brothers” and “sisters.” Adults then were mother and father to all the children of the clan. The longhouse got longer as the extended family got larger.
Inside the longhouse, arranged along both sides, were sections set aside for each nuclear family (made up of a mother, father, and their biological children). Down the middle were the “places for fire” shared by families opposite each other. On the walls were raised sleeping platforms with storage space underneath.
Wherever they visited a longhouse, the early explorers were welcomed. The families would gather around them, curious about the strange blond people in their midst. Gifts were exchanged, the Indians giving valuable beaver pelts and the explorers iron tools. And there was always a feast in their honor. Not only were the visitors well fed—venison, bear, turkey, baked and boiled pumpkins, salmon, trout, perch, and pike—they were always sent on their way with ample dried meats for their long journeys afoot between villages. Along the way, they observed Mohawk farms:
Their cultivated lands are … between the hills, on the margin or along the side of rivers, brooks, or creeks, very flat and level, without a single bush or tree upon them, of a black sandy soil which is four and sometimes five or six feet deep, which can hardly be exhausted. They cultivate it year after year, without manure, for many years. It yields large crops of wheat.
The women and young girls of the longhouses worked together cultivating the fields, planting, and harvesting the Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash. The Three Sisters were grown together on a mound of earth about a foot high. Corn was planted first on top of the mound. When each stalk was about a foot high, beans were planted next to it, so the vines could wind upward around the tall corn. Squash was also planted on the mound, at the foot of the corn. Fruits and nuts were also gathered from the forest. Though it was the men’s responsibility to hunt and fish, they often helped the women with the planting and harvest.
Several travelers had an opportunity to watch the Mohawks at play, commenting on their physical strength and skill. One marveled at the Mohawk canoe:
… made of the bark of trees, and the Indians have many of them for the purpose of making their journeys.
It was fifteen or sixteen feet or more in length. It was so light that two men could easily carry it, as the Indians do in going from one stream or lake to another. They come in such canoes from Canada, and from places so distant we know not where. Four or five of them stepped into this one and rowed lustily through the water with great speed, and when they came back with the current they seemed to fly.
Another described their games—and penchant for betting—played especially during the harvest when everyone stayed close to the village.
And during this time the men play almost everyday a game which consists of making a ball fly. Each player is supplied with a sort of racquet about four feet and six inches long, somewhat curved at the end, and netted with a bowstring, which is used to throw the ball. The player who succeeds in catching the ball with this instrument, juggling it while preventing others from touching it, until he can perform a given number of turns in a large field is victorious. These turns require dexterity and agility in running; we have attended one game that lasted two and a half hours, in which a large sum was at stake on both sides.
The game they describe is lacrosse. It was played on a field between goals, 600 to 1,200 feet apart, depending on the skill and number of players. The goals were marked by pairs of upright poles about 12 feet high, anywhere from 9 to 27 feet apart, with a cord strung between them. Two goalkeepers, or “door guards,” were positioned in front of each goal. The game began with the teams deciding how many points would determine a win. The two team captains stood in the middle of the field holding the ball between their two sticks. After that, anything and everything was allowed, and it was a dangerous, rough-and-tumble game. The egg-shaped wooden ball had to be thrown or carried through the goal posts, defended by tough guys wielding big sticks. Tripping, holding, and charging were fair play. Players were often severely injured, and a few even killed.
Although the longhouse culture disappeared centuries ago, many of its values and ways of life (and lacrosse), Mohawks will tell you, are still very much alive. Visit a Mohawk reserve today and your first impression will be of a people deeply committed to family, friends, and community, with a close connection to the land, who choose collaboration over competition. All the children are the concern of all the adults. As one modern Kahnawake, Conway Jocks, puts it: “We always did things as a group, from hunting and farming to warfare and trade to ironworking. The idea is that whenever any one of us finds good work, others are encouraged to share that opportunity for the common good.”
In the beginning, the Mohawks had learned cooperation out of necessity. Surrounded by warring peoples, they joined scattered camps together into villages better able to defend themselves. Even as they formed larger villages, the cooperative spirit held. Tightly knit communities also became their best defense against unfriendly Europeans.
The Mohawks, being the easternmost of the Six Nations, came into early and frequent contact with Europeans. The Mohawk Valley had been for thousands of years one of the principal pathways between the Atlantic Coast and inland America. First encounters were with explorers, then French and Basque fishermen and traders, and then the Dutch and English.
In the end, it wasn’t the intruders’ guns that killed off the Mohawks; it was their diseases. Epidemics of measles and smallpox, brought by the French and the Dutch, swept through the Iroquois nation in 1633. Nothing in their long history had been as devastating. The Mohawk population simply collapsed, dropping from almost 8,000 to about 2,000 in just a few months. They left their isolated, disease-infested villages and the hundreds of new graves and came together in three large new communities along the borders of current-day Canada and New York.
The Europeans who traded with the Mohawk communities quickly developed an impression that Mohawk men were attracted to danger. “They will walk over deep brooks and creeks on the smallest poles, and that without fear and concern,” surveyor John Lawson observed in 1714; “an Indian will walk on the ridge of a barn or house and look down the gable end and spit on the ground, as unconcerned as if he were walking on terra firma.”
Eventually, many of the men hired out as voyageurs, a word used by the French Canadian fur traders to describe the boatmen who navigated boatloads of furs through hundreds of miles of white-water rapids. It was dangerous work, but profitable; each pelt brought a gold dollar. Stylish European gentlemen of the day required fur trimming on their coats, and hats of felted beaver skins. The rich profits attracted young Frenchmen who canoed deep into the wilderness and spent the winter hunting and trapping with the Indians. In the spring, as soon as the ice on the lakes, rivers, and streams broke up, they loaded the boats, each with up to 600 beaver skins, and rowed out into the raging waters. The Mohawk boatmen thrilled to every danger and challenge, guiding the boats from the Great Lakes, down rushing creeks and tributaries of the Ottawa, over the tricky, deadly Lachine Rapids, and along the St. Lawrence to a chain of small trading posts—Port Royal, Montreal, and Quebec—which grew into towns and cities. These little settlements were another place Europeans came together with the Indians who canoed their valuable furs to the trading posts and bartered for axes, iron kettles, blankets, muskets, knives, scissors, sewing needles, and cloth.
Several generations of Mohawks stayed on the water. Some took on the scary job of riding rafts of logs harvested in the woods down to the mills. “We had a reputation as river men,” Conway Jocks tells us, “some of whom were pilots on the steamers going from Kahnawake to Lachine and Montreal.” But by the late 1800s all of that would begin to change, and, once again, Mohawk men would adapt to their new circumstances.
Excerpted from Sky Walkers by David Weitzman.
Copyright © 2010 by David Weitzman.
Published in September 2010 by Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Construction workers -- Juvenile literature.
Mohawk Indians -- Juvenile literature.
Building, Iron and steel -- History -- Juvenile literature.
Skyscrapers -- History -- Juvenile literature.
Tall buildings -- History -- Juvenile literature.
Bridges -- History -- Juvenile literature.
Building, Iron and steel -- History.
Skyscrapers -- History.
Tall buildings -- History.
Bridges -- History.