May 25, 2011

Film celebrates Mohawk ironworkers


AKWESASNE — St. Regis Mohawk ironworkers are the subject of a new documentary by Academy Award nominee and director Katja Essen.

A preview of the feature-length film, "Skydancer," will be shown at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Akwesasne Senior Center on Route 37.

The film looks at a 120-year tradition of Mohawk steelworkers, who have built some of the country's tallest and most recognizable structures, including the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington Bridge and the World Trade Center.

The film presentation is free and open to the public.


Members of Local 440 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers union from Akwesasne are featured in the movie.

Mike Swamp, the union's former business manager, said he hopes many ironworkers will be available to see the film, "especially the guys in their 60s and 70s.

"This will probably be the first time people will get a chance to see the type of work we do. It's strenuous, it's dangerous, and it's hard work."

The apparent fearlessness and dedication to such high-risk jobs "is something that was passed down from our forefathers for the last 100 years. But it's not for everybody.

"But ironworkers do a lot of different jobs. Some do rebar. Some do structural steel on these buildings right on down to the windows. It's just that it's up in the air."


Swamp said Mohawk steelworkers got a lot of attention in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.

"There were TV programs about our ironworkers because we built it and the demolition of it, and we got a lot of exposure," he said, but the furor soon died down.

The Essen film, he said, could rekindle interest in the ironworkers' legacy.


Ironworkers are honored each year at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino with the Ironworkers Festival, when they demonstrate their climbing and equipment-handling talents and complete for prizes.

This year's festival is July 23, and it attracts ironworkers from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania, who come to test their skills against other professionals and retirees.


According to the official website at, the film "takes a provocative look at Indian life in the 21st Century" and seeks answers "about who are these Mohawk skywalkers really? What is their secret for overcoming fear? And what is their life really like, when every Friday at quitting time, they jump in their cars and make an eight-hour drive back north to their families on the reservation?"

"Skydancer" will premiere at the Brooklyn Institute Film Festival in New York City next month.

Essen was nominated for an Oscar in 2004 for her short-film documentary "Ferry Tales" and has since directed "Hole in the Sky - The Scars of 9/11," "Breast Side Story" and "Poetry of Resilience."

Her first narrative short film, "A Season of Madness," is now being featured at international film festivals.

Email Denise A. Raymo at: