9/11 Museum exhibit tells story of Mohawk ironworkers' contribution to New York City

A special exhibition at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opening Friday highlights the contribution of Mohawk ironworkers to New York City.

Features tintype portraits of workers from Kahnawake and Akwesasne, audio guide in Mohawk language

Lindsay LeBorgne always wanted to be an ironworker. His father worked on the original construction of the World Trade Center. Years later, LeBorgne responded to Ground Zero as a rescue and recovery worker. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

For generations, Mohawk ironworkers have helped shape New York City's iconic skyline.

Now that history of slinging steel is celebrated in Skywalkers: A Portrait of the Mohawk Ironworker at the World Trade Center, a new exhibition opening Friday at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

"Our people have been doing ironwork for well over a hundred years now. It makes me proud," said Lindsay Leborgne, an elected council chief at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.

Before the 60-year-old worked in politics, Leborgne, like many men in Kahnawake, Que., followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, taking up the ironwork trade.

Lindsay LeBorgne's great-grandfather Peter Rice is believed to be one of the workers (sixth from the left) famously photographed eating lunch on a steel beam during the construction of Rockefeller Center in 1932. (Jin S. Lee/National September 11 Memorial & Museum)

He grew up in Brooklyn, where his late father Ronald Leborgne worked, and spent his summers in Kahnawake, like many other Mohawk families during the 1960s.

"There was probably upwards of almost a thousand guys ironworking," he said.

"I remember when I was a kid in the summertime, the only men here in town were young boys, teenagers and older men." 

The exhibition revolves around New York City-based artist Melissa Cacciola's 30 tintype portraits of men from Kahnawake and Akwesasne who volunteered in the rescue efforts after 9/11 and were an integral part of the construction of One World Trade, Towers 2, 3, and 4 and the Calatrava Transportation Hub.

Skywalkers: A Portrait of the Mohawk Ironworker at the World Trade Center opens Friday. (Jin S. Lee/National September 11 Memorial & Museum)

"Mohawks have such an integral part of building New York City, being so active in the recovery effort after 9/11 to the rebuilding in the city, and I think I wanted to be able to tell a story of hope. This is an incredible community," said Cacciola.

Third-generation ironworkers

Leborgne never worked on the World Trade Center, but he helped during relief efforts at Ground Zero in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

On that day, he was in Europe working for the Mohawk Council. When he returned to Canada, he immediately drove down to the union hall in New York and spent a week clearing rubble.

Ironworkers guide a piece of structural steel into place during construction of a World Trade Center building, October 1970 (John Duprey, New York Daily News Archive, Getty Images)

"I spent a good part of my life in Brooklyn growing up there going to school and I just felt I had to help," said Leborgne. "I just felt I had to do something rather than sit and stare at it on the TV."

A photo of his great-grandfather Peter Rice is one of the many archival images in the exhibition to depict the relationship between Mohawk ironworkers and the World Trade Center site across generations.

Jeff Morris, a third-generation ironworker from Kahnawake, was photographed in 2012. Melissa Cacciola’s photographs use the tintype medium, which is one of the earliest forms of photography prominent during the 1860s. (Tintype by Melissa Cacciola, Reproduction photography by D. Primiano)

Jeff Morris was 25 when Cacciola asked him to be photographed during the summer of 2012.

Both his grandfathers worked on the original twin towers. Morris worked on One World Trade and the memorial building where the museum is located.

"Being that high doesn't happen every day," said Morris. 

"I'll never forget the view every morning with the sunrise. You could see Jersey, Brooklyn, even Queens."

Building a city

"The idea that we're really trying to express with this exhibition is continuity," said Dakota Stevens, the museum's exhibitions content co-ordinator.

"Mohawk people have been here for countless centuries now and are still here, still a vibrant community and are still helping to build this city. Each of these individual men in the portfolio — it isn't just them; it's entire families and generations that go back."

Both Leborgne's and Morris's stories are told through an accompanying audio guide that will also be available in the Mohawk language. Kahnawake residents Trina Stacey and Enhakanhoton Norton lent their voices to the project.

Trina Stacey, from Kahnawake, Que, helped translate an audio guide that accompanies the exhibition into the Mohawk language. (National September 11 Memorial & Museum)

"Our men are still building this country and on behalf of Onkwehón:we [Indigenous] ironworkers who are risking their life every day to build to build the future, I feel like I'm representing my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my uncles," said Stacey.

"They didn't have to include Onkwehonwehnéha [Indigenous language] in this, but they did. Through that action, they're honouring us, they're respecting us."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.