Up in the Old Hotel
AND OTHER STORIES
By Joseph Mitchell
The Mohawks in High Steel
The most footloose Indians in North America are a band of mixed‑blood Mohawks whose home, the Caughnawaga Reservation, is on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. They are generally called the Caughnawagas. In times past, they were called the Christian Mohawks or the Praying Mohawks. There are three thousand of them, at least six hundred and fifty of whom spend more time in cities and towns all over the United States than they do on the reservation. Some are as restless as gypsies. It is not unusual for a family to lock up its house, leave the key with a neighbor, get into an automobile, and go away for years. There are colonies of Caughnawagas in Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Detroit. The biggest colony is in Brooklyn, out in the North Gowanus neighborhood. It was started in the late twenties, there are approximately four hundred men, women, and children in it, it is growing, and it shows signs of permanence. A few families have bought houses. The pastor of one of the churches in the neighborhood, the Cuyler Presbyterian, has learned the Mohawk dialect of the Iroquois language and holds a service in it once a month, and the church has elected a Caughnawaga to its board of deacons. There have been marriages between Caughnawagas and members of other groups in the neighborhood. The Caughnawaga women once had trouble in finding a brand of corn meal (Quaker White Enriched and Degerminated) that they like to use in making ka‑na‑ta‑rok, or Indian boiled bread; all the grocery stores in North Gowanus, even the little Italian ones, now carry it. One saloon, the Nevins Bar & Grill, has become a Caughnawaga hangout and is referred to in the neighborhood as the Indian Bank; on weekend nights, two‑thirds of its customers are Caughnawagas; to encourage their patronage, it stocks one Montreal ale and two Montreal beers. A saying in the band is that Brooklyn is the downtown of Caughnawaga.
Caughnawaga Reservation is on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, just above Lachine Rapids. It is nine miles upriver from Montreal, which is on the north shore. By bus, it is half an hour from Dominion Square, the center of Montreal. It is a small reservation. It is a tract of farmland, swamp, and scrub timber that is shaped like a half‑moon; it parallels the river for eight miles and is four miles wide at its widest point. On the river side, about midway, there is a sprawled‑out village, also named Caughnawaga. Only a few of the Caughnawagas are farmers. The majority live in the village and rent their farmland to French Canadians and speak of the rest of the reservation as "the bush." The Montreal‑to‑Malone, New York, highway goes through Caughnawaga village. It is the main street. On it are about fifty commonplace frame dwellings, the office of the Agent of the Indian Affairs Branch of the Canadian government, the Protestant church (it is of the United Church of Canada denomination), the Protestant school, and several Indian‑owned grocery stores and filling stations. The stores are the gathering places of the old men of the village. In each store is a cluster of chairs, boxes, and nail kegs on which old men sit throughout the day, smoking and playing blackjack and eating candy bars and mumbling a few words now and then, usually in Mohawk. In the front yards of half a dozen of the dwellings are ramshackly booths displaying souvenirs — papoose dolls, moccasins, sweet‑grass baskets, beadwork handbags, beadwork belts, beadwork wristwatch straps, and pincushions on which beads spell out "Mother Dear," "Home Sweet Home," "I Love U,‑ and similar legends. In one yard, between two totem poles, is a huge, elm‑bark tepee with a sign on it that reads, "Stop! & Pow Wow With Me. Chief White Eagle. Indian Medicine Man. Herbages Indiens. " Except on ceremonial occasions and for show purposes, when they put on fringed and beaded buckskins and feather headdresses of the Plains Indian type, Caughnawagas dress as other Canadians do, and if it were not for these front‑yard establishments, most motorists would be unaware that they were passing through an Indian village. A scattering of Caughnawagas look as Indian as can be; they have high cheekbones and jut noses, their eyes are sad, shrewd, and dark brown, their hair is straight and coal black, their skin is smooth and coppery, and they have the same beautiful, erect, chin‑lifted, haughty walk that gypsies have. White blood, however, has blurred the Indianness of the majority; some look dimly but unmistakably Indian, some look Indian only after one has searched their faces for Indian characteristics, and some do not look Indian at all. They run to two physical types; one type, the commoner, is thickset, fleshy, and broad‑faced, and the other is tall, bony, and longheaded. Some of the younger Caughnawagas have studied a little of the Indian past in school and they disapprove of the front‑yard establishments. They particularly disapprove of Chief White Eagle's establishment; they feel that it gives visitors a highly erroneous impression of Caughnawaga right off the bat. First of all, the old Mohawks did not live in tepees but in logand‑bark communal houses called longhouses, and they did not make totem poles. Also, there haven't been any chiefs in Caughnawaga, except self‑appointed ones, since 18go. Furthermore, while all Caughnawagas have Indian names, some much fancier than White Eagle, few go under them outside their own circles, and those who do almost invariably run them together and preface them with a white given name; John Goodleaf, Tom Tworivers, and Dominick Twoax are examples. Caughnawagas discovered long ago that whites are inclined to look upon Indian names, translated or untranslated, as humorous. In dealing with whites, ninety‑five per cent of them go under white names, and have for many generations. Most of these names are ordinary English, Scotch, Irish, or French ones, a number of which date back to intermarriages with early settlers. The names of the oldest and biggest Caughnawaga families are Jacobs, Williams, Rice, McComber, Tarbell, Stacey, Diabo (originally D'Ailleboust), Montour, De Lisle, Beauvais, and Lahache. The most frequent given names are Joe, John, and Angus, and Mary, Annie, and Josie.
On each side of the highway there is a labyrinth of lanes, some dirt, some gravel, and some paved. Some are straight and some are snaky. The dwellings on them are much older than those on the highway, and they range from log cabins to big field‑stone houses with frame wings and lean‑tos; members of three and even four generations of a family may live in one house. In the yards are gardens and apple trees and sugar‑maple trees and piles of automobile junk and groups of outbuildings, usually a garage, a privy, a chicken coop, and a stable. Large families keep a cow or two and a plug horse; the French Canadians who rent the reservation farmland sell all their worn‑out horses to the villagers. The dwellings in Caughnawaga are wired for electricity, just about every family has a radio and a few have telephones, but there is no waterworks system. Water for drinking and cooking is obtained from public pumps — the old‑fashioned boxed‑up, long‑handled kind‑situated here and there on the lanes. Water for washing clothes and for bathing is carted up from the river in barrels, and the horses are used for this. They are also used for carting firewood, and the children ride them. Most mornings, the cows and horses are driven to unfenced pastures on the skirts of the village. A few always mosey back during the day and wander at will.
The busiest of the lanes is one that runs beside the river. On it are the reservation post office, the Catholic church, the Catholic schools, a parish hall named Kateri Hall, and a small Catholic hospital. The post office occupies the parlor in the home of Frank McDonald Jacobs, the patriarch of the band. A daughter of his Veronica Jacobs, is postmistress. The church, St. Francis Xavier's: is the biggest building in the village. It is a hundred years old, it is made of cut stone of a multiplicity of shades of silver and gray, and the cross on its steeple is surmounted by a gilded weathercock. It is a Jesuit mission church; at its altar, by an old privilege, masses are said in Mohawk. In the summer, sightseeing buses from Montreal stop regularly at St. Francis Xavier's and a Jesuit scholastic guides the sightseers through it and shows them its treasures, the most precious of which are some of the bones of Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian virgin called the Lily of the Mohawks who died at Caughnawaga in 1680. The old bones lie on a watered‑silk cushion in a glass‑topped chest. Sick and afflicted people make pilgrimages to the church and pray before them. In a booklet put out by the church, it is claimed that sufferers from many diseases, including cancer, have been healed through Kateri's intercession. Kateri is venerated because of the bitter penances she imposed upon herself; according to the memoirs of missionaries who knew her, she wore iron chains, lay upon thorns, whipped herself until she bled, plunged into icy water, went about barefoot on the snow, and fasted almost continuously.
On a hill in the southern part of the village are two weedy graveyards. One is for Catholics, and it is by far the bigger. The other is for Protestants and pagans. At one time, all the Caughnawagas were Catholics. Since the early twenties, a few have gone over to other faiths every year. Now, according to a Canadian government census, 2,682 are Catholics, 2Ni belong to Protestant denominations, and 77 are pagans. The so‑called pagans — they do not like the term and prefer to be known as the longhouse people belong to an Indian religion called the Old Way or the Handsome Lake Revelation. Their prophet, Handsome Lake, was a Seneca who in 1799, after many years of drunkenness, had a vision in which the spirits up above spoke to him. He reformed and spent his last fifteen years as a roving preacher in Indian villages in upstate New York. In his sermons, he recited some stories and warnings and precepts that he said the spirits had revealed to him. Many of these have been handed down by word of mouth and they constitute the gospel of the religion; a few men in each generation — they are called "the good‑message‑keepers" — memorize them. The precepts are simply stated. An example is a brief one from a series concerning the sins of parents: "It often happens that parents hold angry disputes in the hearing of their infant child. The infant hears and comprehends their angry words. It feels lost and lonely. It can see for itself no happiness in prospect. This is a great sin." During the nineteenth century, Handsome Lake's religion spread to every Iroquois reservation in the United States and Canada except Caughnawaga. It reached Caughnawaga right after the First World War and, despite the opposition of Catholics and Protestants, began to be practiced openly in 1927. Handsome Lake's followers meet in ceremonial structures that they call longhouses. The Caughnawaga longhouse is on the graveyard hill. It resembles a country schoolhouse. It is a plain, one‑room, frame building surrounded by a barbed‑wire fence. Several times a year, on dates determined by the phases of the moon or the rising of sap in the sugar maples or the ripening of fruits and vegetables, the longhouse people get together and hold thanksgiving festivals, among which are a Midwinter Festival, a Thanks-to‑the‑Maple Festival, a Strawberry Festival, and a String Bean Festival. In the course of the festivals, they burn little heaps of sacred tobacco leaves, eat a dish called corn soup, make public confessions of their sins, and chant and dance to the music of rattles and drums. The smoke from the tobacco fires is supposed to ascend to the spirits. The sacred tobacco is not store‑bought. It is a kind of tobacco known as Red Rose, an intensely acrid species that grows wild in parts of the United States and Canada. The longhouse people grow it in their gardens from wild seed and cure the leaves in the sun. The longhouse rattles are gourds or snapping‑turtle shells with kernels of corn inside them, and the drums are wooden pails that barn paint came in with rawhide or old inner tubes stretched over their mouths. The Catholics and Protestants complain that for several days after a longhouse festival everyone on the reservation is moody.
The Caughnawagas are among the oldest reservation Indians. The band had its origin in the latter half of the seventeenth century, when French Jesuit missionaries converted somewhere between fifty and a hundred Iroquois families in a dozen longhouse villages in what is now western and northern New York and persuaded them to go up to Quebec and settle in a mission outpost. This outpost was on the St. Lawrence, down below Lachine Rapids. The converts began arriving there in 1668. Among them were members of all the tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy — Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. There were also a few Hurons, Eries, and Ottawas who had been captured and adopted by the Iroquois and had been living with them in the longhouse villages. Mohawks greatly predominated, and Mohawk customs and the Mohawk dialect of Iroquois eventually became the customs and speech of the whole group. In 1676, accompanied by two Jesuits, they left the outpost and went up the river to the foot of the rapids and staked out a village of their own, naming it Ka‑na‑wi‑ke, which is Mohawk for "at the rapids"; Caughnawaga is a latter‑day spelling. They moved the village three times, a few miles at a time and always upriver. With each move, they added to their lands. The final move, to the present site of Caughnawaga village, was made in 1719. Until 1830, the Caughnawaga lands were mission lands. In that year, the Canadian government took control of the bulk of them and turned them into a tax‑free reservation, parcelling out a homestead to each family and setting aside other pieces, called the Commons, for the use of future generations. Through the years, grants of Commons land have grown smaller and smaller; there are only about five hundred acres of it left; according to present policy, a male member of the band, after reaching his eighteenth birthday, may be granted exactly one‑fourth of an acre if he promises to build upon it. A Caughnawaga is allowed to rent his land to anybody, but he may sell or give it only to another member of the band. Unlike many reservation Indians, the Caughnawagas have always had considerable say‑so in their own affairs, at first through chiefs, each representing several families, who would go to the Indian Agent with requests or grievances, and then through an annually elected tribal council. The council has twelve members, it meets once a month in the parish hall, and it considers such matters as the granting of Commons land, the relief of the needy, and the upkeep of lanes and pumps. Its decisions, when approved by the Indian Affairs Branch in Ottawa, are automatically carried out by the Agent.
IN THE EARLY YEARS at Caughnawaga, the men clung to their old, aboriginal Iroquois ways of making a living. The Jesuits tried to get them to become farmers, but they would not. In the summer, while the women farmed, they fished. In the fall and winter, they hunted in a body in woods all over Quebec, returning to the village now and then with canoeloads of smoked deer meat, moose meat, and bear meat. Then, around 1700, a few of the youths of the first generation born at Caughnawaga. went down to Montreal and took jobs in the French fur trade. They became canoemen in the great fleets of canoes that carried trading goods to remote depots on the St. Lawrence and its tributaries and brought back bales of furs. They liked this work — it was hard but hazardous — and they recruited others. Thereafter, for almost a century and a half, practically every youth in the band took a job in a freight canoe as soon as he got his strength, usually around the age of seventeen. In the eighteen-thirties, forties, and fifties, as the fur trade declined in Lower Canada, the Caughnawaga men were forced to find other things to do. Some switched to the St. Lawrence timber‑rafting industry and became famous on the river for their skill in running immense rafts of oak and pine over Lachine Rapids. Some broke down and became farmers. Some made moccasins and snowshoes and sold them to jobbers in Montreal. A few who were still good at the old Mohawk dances came down to the United States and travelled with circuses; Caughnawagas were among the first circus Indians. A few bought horses and buggies and went from farmhouse to farmhouse in New England in the summer, peddling medicines — tonics, purges, liniments, and remedies for female ills — that the old women brewed from herbs and roots and seeds. A good many became depressed and shiftless; these hung out in Montreal and did odd jobs and drank cheap brandy.
In 1886, the life at Caughnawaga changed abruptly. In the spring of that year, the Dominion Bridge Company began the construction of a cantilever railroad bridge across the St. Lawrence for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, crossing from the French‑Canadian village of Lachine on the north shore to a point just below Caughnawaga village on the south shore. The D.B.C. is the biggest erector of iron and steel structures in Canada; it corresponds to the Bethlehem Steel Company in the United States. In obtaining the right to use reservation land for the bridge abutment, the Canadian Pacific and the D.B.C. promised that Caughnawagas would be employed on the job wherever possible.
"The records of the company for this bridge show that it wasour understanding that we would employ these Indians as ordinary day laborers unloading materials," an official of the D.B.C. wrote recently in a letter. "They were dissatisfied with this arrangement and would come out on the bridge itself every chance they got. It was quite impossible to keep them off. As the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights. If not watched, they would climb up into the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters, most of whom at that period were old sailing‑ship men especially picked for their experience in working aloft. These Indians were as agile as goats. They would walk a narrow beam high up in the air with nothing below them but the river, which is rough there and ugly to look down on, and it wouldn't mean any more to them than walking on the solid ground. They seemed immune to the noise of the riveting, which goes right through you and is often enough in itself to make newcomers to construction feel sick and dizzy. They were inquisitive about the riveting and were continually bothering our foremen by requesting that they be allowed to take a crack at it. This happens to be the most dangerous work in all construction, and the highest paid. Men who want to do it are rare and men who can do it are even rarer, and in good construction years there are sometimes not enough of them to go around. We decided it would be mutually advantageous to see what these Indians could do, so we picked out some and gave them a little training, and it turned out that putting riveting tools in their hands was like putting ham with eggs. In other words, they were natural‑born bridgemen. Our records do not show how many we trained on this bridge. There is a tradition in the company that we trained twelve, or enough to form three riveting gangs."
In the erection of steel structures, whether bridge or building, there are three main divisions of workers — raising gangs, fittingup gangs, and riveting gangs. The steel comes to a job already cut and built up into various kinds of columns and beams and girders; the columns are the perpendicular pieces and the beams and girders are the horizontal ones. Each piece has two or more groups of holes bored through it to receive bolts and rivets, and each piece has a code mark chalked or painted on it, indicating where it should go in the structure. Using a crane or a derrick, the men in the raising gang hoist the pieces up and set them in position and join them by running bolts through a few of the holes in them; these bolts are temporary. Then the men in the fitting‑up gang come along; they are divided into plumbers and bolters. The plumbers tighten up the pieces with guy wires and turnbuckles and make sure that they are in plumb. The bolters put in some more temporary bolts. Then the riveting gangs come along; one raising gang and one fitting‑up gang will keep several riveting gangs busy. There are four men in a riveting gang — a heater, a sticker‑in, a bucker‑up, and a riveter. The heater lays some wooden planks across a couple of beams, making a platform for the portable, coal‑burning forge in which he heats the rivets. The three other men hang a plank scaffold by ropes from the steel on which they are going to work. There are usually six two‑by‑ten planks in a scaffold, three on each side of the steel, affording just room enough to work; one false step and it's goodbye Charlie. The three men climb down with their tools and take their positions on the scaffold; most often the sticker — in and the bucker‑up stand on one side and the riveter stands or kneels on the other. The heater, on his platform, picks a red‑hot rivet off the coals in his forge with tongs and tosses it to the sticker‑in, who catches it in a metal can. At this stage, the rivet is shaped like a mushroom; it has a buttonhead and a stem. Meanwhile, the bucker‑up has unscrewed and pulled out one of the temporary bolts joining two pieces of steel, leaving the hole empty. The sticker‑in picks the rivet out of his can with tongs and sticks it in the hole and pushes it in until the buttonhead is flush with the steel on his side and the stem protrudes from the other side, the riveter's side. The sticker‑in steps out of the way. The bucker‑up fits a tool called a dolly bar over the buttonhead and holds it there, bracing the rivet. Then the riveter presses the cupped head of his pneumatic hammer against the protruding stem end of the rivet, which is still red‑hot and malleable, and turns on the power and forms a buttonhead on it. This operation is repeated until every hole that can be got at from the scaffold is riveted up.
Then the scaffold is moved. The heater's platform stays in one place until all the work within a rivet‑tossing radius of thirty to forty feet is completed. The men on the scaffold know each other's jobs and are interchangeable; the riveter's job is bone‑shaking and nerve-racking, and every so often one of the others swaps with him for a while. In the days before pneumatic hammers, the riveter used two tools, a cupped die and an iron maul; he placed the die over the stem end of the red‑hot rivet and beat on it with the maul until he squashed the stem end into a buttonhead.
After the D.B.C. completed the Canadian Pacific Bridge, it began work on a jackknife bridge now known as the Soo Bridge, which crosses two canals and a river and connects the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. This job took two years. Old Mr. Jacobs, the patriarch of the band, says that the Caughnawaga riveting gangs went straight from the Canadian Pacific job to the Soo job and that each gang took along an apprentice. Mr. Jacobs is in his eighties. In his youth, he was a member of a riveting gang; in his middle age, he was, successively, a commercial traveller for a wholesale grocer in Montreal, a schoolteacher on the reservation, and a campaigner for compulsory education for Indians. "The Indian boys turned the Soo Bridge into a college for themselves," he says. "The way they worked it, as soon as one apprentice was trained, they'd send back to the reservation for another one. By and by, there'd be enough men for a new Indian gang. When the new gang was organized, there'd be a shuffle‑up — a couple of men from the old gangs would go into the new gang and a couple of the new men would go into the old gangs; the old would balance the new." This proliferation continued on subsequent jobs, and by 1907 there were over seventy skilled bridgemen in the Caughnawaga band. On August 29, 1907, during the erection of the Quebec Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence nine miles above Quebec City, a span collapsed, killing ninety‑six men, of whom thirty‑five were Caughnawagas. In the band, this is always spoken of as "the disaster."
"People thought the disaster would scare the Indians away from high steel for good," Mr. Jacobs says. "Instead of which, the general effect it had, it made high steel much more interesting to them. It made them take pride in themselves that they could do such dangerous work. Up to then, the majority of them, they didn't consider it any more dangerous than timber‑rafting. Also, it made them the most looked‑up‑to men on the reservation. The little boys in Caughnawaga used to look up to the men that went out with circuses in the summer and danced and war‑whooped all over the States and came back to the reservation in the winter and holed up and sat by the stove and drank whiskey and bragged. That's what they wanted to do. Either that, or work on the timber rafts. After the disaster, they changed their minds — they all wanted to go into high steel. The disaster was a terrible blow to the women. The first thing they did, they got together a sum of money for a life‑size crucifix to hang over the main altar in St. Francis Xavier's. They did that to show their Christian resignation. The next thing they did, they got in behind the men and made them split up and scatter out. That is, they wouldn't allow all the gangs to work together on one bridge any more, which, if something went wrong, it might widow half the young women on the reservation. A few gangs would go to this bridge and a few would go to that. Pretty soon, there weren't enough bridge jobs, and the gangs began working on all types of high steel‑factories, office buildings, department stores, hospitals, hotels, apartment houses, schools, breweries, distilleries, power houses, piers, railroad stations, grain elevators, anything and everything. In a few years, every steel structure of any size that went up in Canada, there were Indians on it. Then Canada got too small and they began crossing the border. They began going down to Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit."
Sometime in 1915 or 1916, a Caughnawaga bridgeman named John Diabo came down to New York City and got a job on Hell Gate Bridge. He was a curiosity and was called Indian Joe; two old foremen still remember him. After he had worked for some months as bucker‑up in an Irish gang, three other Caughnawagas joined him and they formed a gang of their own. They had worked together only a few weeks when Diabo stepped off a scaffold and dropped into the river and was drowned. He was highly skilled and his misstep was freakish; recently, in trying to explain it, a Caughnawaga said, "It must've been one of those cases, he got in the way of himself " The other Caughnawagas went back to the reservation with his body and did not return. As well as the old men in the band can recollect, no other Caughnawagas worked here until the twenties. In 1926, attracted by the building boom, three or four Caughnawaga, gangs came down. The old men say that these gangs worked first on the Fred F. French Building, the Graybar Building, and One Fifth Avenue. In 1928, three more gangs came down. They worked first on the George Washington Bridge. In the thirties, when Rockefeller Center was the biggest steel job in the country, at least seven additional Caughnawaga gangs came down. Upon arriving here, the men in all these gangs enrolled in the Brooklyn local of the high‑steel union, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers, American Federation of Labor. Why they enrolled in the Brooklyn instead of the Manhattan local, no one now seems able to remember. The hall of the Brooklyn local is on Atlantic Avenue, in the block between Times Plaza and Third Avenue, and the Caughnawagas got lodgings in furnished‑room houses and cheap hotels in the North Gowanus neighborhood, a couple of blocks up Atlantic from the hall. In the early thirties, they began sending for their families and moving into tenements and apartment houses in the same neighborhood. During the war, Caughnawagas continued to come down. Many of these enrolled in the Manhattan local, but all of them settled in North Gowanus.
At present, there are eighty‑three Caughnawagas in the Brooklyn local and forty‑two in the Manhattan local. Less than a third of them work steadily in the city. The others keep their families in North Gowanus and work here intermittently but spend much of their time in other cities. They roam from coast to coast, usually by automobile, seeking rush jobs that offer unlimited overtime work at double pay; in New York City, the steel‑erecting companies use as little overtime as possible. A gang may work in half a dozen widely separated cities in a single year. Occasionally, between jobs, they return to Brooklyn to see their families. Now and then, after long jobs, they pick up their families and go up to the reservation for a vacation; some go up every summer. A few men sometimes take their families along on trips to jobs and send them back to Brooklyn by bus or train. Several foremen who have had years of experience with Caughnawagas believe that they roam because they can't help doing so, it is a passion, and that their search for overtime is only an excuse. A veteran foreman for the American Bridge Company says he has seen Caughnawagas leave jobs that offered all the overtime they could handle. When they are making up their minds to move on, he says, they become erratic. "Everything will be going along fine on a job," he says. "Good working conditions. Plenty of overtime. A nice city. Then the news will come over the grapevine about some big new job opening up somewhere; it might be a thousand miles away. That kind of news always causes a lot of talk, what we call water‑bucket talk, but the Indians don't talk; they know what's in each other's mind. For a couple of days, they're tensed up and edgy. They look a little wild in the eyes. They've heard the call. Then, all of a sudden, they turn in their tools, and they're gone. Can't wait another minute. They'll quit at lunchtime, in the middle of the week. They won't even wait for their pay. Some other gang will collect their money and hold it until a postcard comes back telling where to send it." George C. Lane, manager of erections in the New York district for the Bethlehem Steel Company, once said that the movements of a Caughnawaga, gang are as impossible to foresee as the movements of a flock of sparrows. "In the summer of 1936," Mr. Lane said, "we finished a job here in the city and the very next day we were starting in on a job exactly three blocks away. I heard one of our foremen trying his best to persuade an Indian gang to go on the new job. They had got word about a job in Hartford and wanted to go up there. The foreman told them the rate of pay was the same; there wouldn't be any more overtime up there than here; their families were here; they'd have travelling expenses; they'd have to root around Hartford for lodgings. Oh, no; it was Hartford or nothing. A year or so later I ran into this gang on a job in Newark, and I asked the heater how they made out in Hartford that time. He said they didn't go to Hartford. 'We went to San Francisco, California,' he said. 'We went out and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge."'
In New York City, the Caughnawagas work mostly for the big companies — Bethlehem, American Bridge, the Lehigh Structural Steel Company, and the Harris Structural Steel Company. Among the structures in and around the city on which they worked in numbers are the R.C.A. Building, the Cities Service Building, the Empire State Building, the Daily News Building, the Chanin Building, the Bank of the Manhattan Company Building, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Bayonne Bridge, the Passaic River Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Little Hell Gate Bridge, the Bronx‑Whitestone Bridge, the Marine Parkway Bridge, the Pulaski Skyway, the West Side Highway, the Waldorf‑Astoria, London Terrace, and Knickerbocker Village.
NORTH GOWANUS IS AN OLD, sleepy, shabby neighborhood that lies between the head of the Gowanus Canal and the Borough Hall shopping district. There are factories in it, and coal tipples and junk yards, but it is primarily residential, and red‑brick tenements and brownstone apartment houses are most numerous. The Caughnawagas all live within ten blocks of each other, in an area bounded by Court Street on the west, Schermerhorn Street on the north, Fourth Avenue on the east, and Warren Street on the south. They live in the best houses on the best blocks. As a rule, Caughnawaga women are good housekeepers and keep their apartments Dutchclean. Most of them decorate a mantel or a wall with heirlooms brought down from the reservation — a drum, a set of rattles, a mask, a cradleboard. Otherwise, their apartments look much the same as those of their white neighbors. A typical family group consists of husband and wife and a couple of children and a female relative or two. After they get through school on the reservation, many Caughnawaga girls come down to North Gowanus and work in factories. Some work for the Fred Goat Company, a metal-stamping factory in the neighborhood, and some work for the Gem Safety Razor Corporation, whose factory is within walking distance. Quite a few of these girls have married whites; several have broken the Gospel According to Luke into Mohawk. Dr. Cory is quite serious, his sermons are free of cant, he has an intuitive understanding of Indian conversational taboos, and he is the only white person who is liked and trusted by the whole colony. Caughnawagas who are not members of his congregation, even some Catholics and longhouse people, go to him for advice.
OCCASIONALLY, IN A SALOON or at a wedding or a wake, Caughnawagas become vivacious and talkative. Ordinarily, however, they are rather dour and don't talk much. There is only one person in the North Gowanus colony who has a reputation for garrulity. He is a man of fifty‑four whose white name is Orvis Diabo and whose Indian name is 0‑ron‑ia‑ke‑te, or He Carries the Sky. Mr. Diabo is squat and barrel‑chested. He has small, sharp eyes, and, round, swarthy, double‑chinned, piratical face. Unlike most other Caughnawagas, he does not deny or even minimize his white blood. "My mother was half Scotch. And half Indian," he says. "My grandmother on my father's side was Scotch‑Irish. Somewhere along the line, I forget just where, some French immigrant and some full Irish crept in. If you were to take my blood and strain it, God only knows what you'd find." He was born a Catholic; in young manhood, became a Presbyterian; he now thinks of himself as "a kind of free‑thinker." Mr. Diabo started working in riveting gangs when he was nineteen and quit a year and a half ago. He had to quit because of crippling attacks of arthritis. He was a heater and worked on bridges and buildings in seventeen states. "I heated a million rivets,” he says. "When they talk about the men that built this country, one of the men they mean is me." Mr. Diabo owns a house and thirty‑three acres of farmland on the reservation. He inherited the farmland and rents it to a French Canadian. Soon after he quit work, his wife, who had lived in North Gowanus off and on for almost twenty years but had never liked it, went back to the reservation. She tried to get him to go along, but he decided to stay on awhile and rented a room in the apartment of a cousin. "I enjoy New York," he says. "The people are as high‑strung as rats and the air is too gritty, but I enjoy it." Mr. Diabo reads a lot. Some years ago, in a Western magazines, he came across an advertisement of the Haldeman-Julius Company, a mail-order publishing house in Girard, Kansas, that puts out over eighteen hundred paperbound books, most of them dealing with religion, health, sex, history or popular science. They are called the Little Blue Books and cost a dime apiece. “I sent away for a dollar’s worth of Little Blue Books,” Mr. Diabo says, “and they opened my eyes to what an ignorant man I was. Ignorant and supersititious. Didn’t know beans from back up. Since then, I've become a great reader. I've read dozens upon dozens of Little Blue Books, and I've improved my mind to the extent that I'm far beyond most of the people I associate with. When you come right down to it, I'm an educated man." Mr. Diabo has five favorite Little Blue Books — Absurdities of the Bible, by Clarence Darrow; Seven Infidel U.S. Presidents, by Joseph McCabe; Queer Facts about Lost Civilizations, by Charles J. Finger; Why I Do Not Fear Death, by E. Haldeman Julius; and Is Our Civilization Over‑Sexed? by Theodore Dreiser. He carries them around in his pockets and reads them over and over. Mr. Diabo stays in bed until noon. Then, using a cane, he hobbles over to a neighborhood saloon, the Nevins Bar & Grill, at 75 Nevins Street, and sits in a booth. If there is someone around who will sit still and listen, he talks. If not, he reads a Little Blue Book. The Nevins is the social center of the Caughnawaga colony. The men in the gangs that work in the city customarily stop there for an hour or so on the way home. On weekend nights, they go there with their wives and drink Montreal ale and look at the television.
When gangs come in from out‑of‑town jobs, they go on sprees there. When a Caughnawaga high‑steel man is killed on the job, a collection is taken up in the Nevins for the immediate expenses of his family; these collections rarely run less than two hundred dollars; pasted on the bar mirror are several notes of thanks from widows.
The Nevins is small and snug and plain and old. It is one of the oldest saloons in Brooklyn. It was opened in 1888, when North Gowanus was an Irishtown, and it was originally called Connelly's Abbey. Irish customers still call it the Abbey. Its present owners are Artie Rose and Bunny Davis. Davis is married to a Caughnawaga girl, the former Mavis Rice.
One afternoon a while back, I sat down with Mr. Diabo in his booth in the Nevins. He almost always drinks ale. This day he was drinking gin.
"I feel very low in my mind," he said. "I've got to go back to the reservation. I've run out of excuses and I can't put it off much longer. I got a letter from my wife today and she's disgusted with me. 'I'm sick and tired of begging you to come home,' she said. 'You can sit in Brooklyn until your tail takes root.' The trouble is, I don't want to go. That is, I do and I don't. I'll try to explain what I mean. An Indian high‑steel man, when he first leaves the reservation to work in the States, the homesickness just about kills him. The first few years, he goes back as often as he can. Every time he finishes a job, unless he's thousands of miles away, he goes back. If he's working in New York, he drives up weekends, and it's a twelve-hour drive. After a while, he gets married and brings his wife down and starts a family, and he doesn't go back so often. Oh, he most likely takes the wife and children up for the summer, but he doesn't stay with them. After three or four days, the reservation gets on his nerves and he highballs it back to the States. He gets used to the States. The years go by. He gets to be my age, maybe a little older, maybe a little younger, and one fine morning he comes to the conclusion he's a little too damned stiff in the joints to be walking a naked beam five hundred feet up in the air. Either that, or some foreman notices he hasn't got a sure step any longer and takes him aside and tells him a few home truths. He gives up highsteel work and he packs his belongings and he takes his money out of the bank or the postal savings, what little he's been able to squirrel away, and he goes on back to the reservation for good. And it's hard on him. He's used to danger, and reservation life is very slow.; the biggest thing that ever happens is a funeral. He's used to jumping around from job to job, and reservation life boxes him in. He's used to having a drink, and it's against the law to traffic in liquor on the reservation; he has to buy a bottle in some FrenchCanadian town across the river and smuggle it in like a high‑school boy, and that annoys the hell out of him.
"There's not much he can do to occupy the time. He can sit on the highway and watch the cars go by, or he can sit on the riverbank and fish for eels and watch the boats go by, or he can weed the garden, or he can go to church, or he can congregate in the grocery stores with the other old retired high‑steel men and play cards and talk. That is, if he can stand it. You'd think those old men would talk about the cities they worked in, the sprees they went on, the girls that follow construction all over the country that they knew, the skyscrapers and bridges they put up — only they don't. After they been sitting around the reservation five years, six years, seven years, they seem to turn against their high‑steel days. Some of them, they get to be as Indian as all hell; they won't even speak English any more; they make out they can't understand it. And some of them, they get to be soreheads, the kind of old men that can chew nails and spit rust. When they do talk, they talk gloomy. They like to talk about family fights. There's families on the reservation that got on the outs with each other generations ago and they're still on the outs; maybe it started with a land dispute, maybe it started with a mixed‑marriage dispute, maybe it started when some woman accused another woman of meeting her husband in the bushes in the graveyard. Even down here in Brooklyn, there's certain Indians that won't work in gangs with certain other Indians because of bad blood between their families; their wives, when they meet on Atlantic Avenue, they look right through each other. The old men like to bring up such matters and refresh their recollections on some of the details. Also, they like to talk about religion. A miraculous cure they heard about, something the priest said — they'll harp on it for weeks. They're all amateur priests, or preachers. They've all got some religious notion lurking around in their minds.
"And they like to talk about reservation matters. The last time I was home, I sat down with the bunch in a store and I tried to tell them about something I'd been studying up on that interested me very much — Mongolian spots. They're dark‑purple spots that occur on the skin on the backs of Japanese and other Mongolians. Every now and then, a full‑blood American Indian is born with them. The old men didn't want to hear about Mongolian spots. They were too busy discussing the matter of street names for Caughnawaga village. The electric‑light company that supplies the village had been trying and trying to get the Indians to name the streets and lanes. The meter‑readers are always getting balled up, and the company had offered to put up street signs and house numbers free of charge. The old men didn't want street names; they were raising holy hell about it. It wouldn't be Indian. And they were discussing the pros and cons of a waterworks system. They're eternally discussing that. Some want a waterworks, but the majority don't. The majority of them, they'd a whole lot rather get behind a poor old horse that his next step might be his last and cart their water up from the river by the barrel. It's more Indian. Sometimes, the way an Indian reasons, there's no rhyme or reason to it. Electric lights are all right and the biggest second‑hand car they can find, and radios that the only time they turn them off is when they're changing the tubes, and seventy‑five‑dollar baby carriages, and four‑hundred-dollar coffins, but street names and tap water — oh, Jesus, no! That's going entirely too damned far.
"On the other hand, there's things I look forward to. I look forward to eating real Indian grub again. Such as o‑nen‑sto, or corn soup. That's the Mohawk national dish. Some of the women make it down here in Brooklyn, but they use Quaker corn meal. The good old women up on the reservation, they make it the hard way, the way the Mohawks were making it five hundred years ago. They shell some corn, and they put it in a pot with a handful of maple ashes and boil it. The lye in the ashes skins the hulls off the kernels, and the kernels swell up into big fat pearls. Then they wash off the lye. Then they put in some red kidney beans. Then they put in a pig's head; in the old days, it was a bear's head. Then they cook it until it's as thick as mud. And when it's cooking, it smells so good. If you were breathing your last, if you had the rattle in your throat, and the wind blew you a faint suggestion of a smell of it, you'd rise and walk. And I look forward to eating some Indian bread that's made with the same kind of corn. Down here, the women always use Quaker meal. Indian bread is boiled, and it's shaped like a hamburger, and it's got kidney beans sprinkled through it. On the reservation, according to an old‑time custom, we have steak for breakfast every Sunday morning, whether we can afford it or not, and we pour the steak gravy on the Indian bread.
"And another thing I look forward to, if I can manage it — I want to attend a longhouse festival. If I have to join to do so, I'll join. One night, the last time I was home, the longhousers were having a festival. I decided I'd go up to the Catholic graveyard that's right below the longhouse and hide in the bushes and listen to the music. So I snuck up there and waded through the thistles and the twitch grass and the Queen Anne's lace, and I sat down on a flat stone on the grave of an uncle of mine, Miles Diabo, who was a warwhooper with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show and died with the pneumonia in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1916. Uncle Miles was one of the last of the Caughnawaga circus Indians. My mother is in that graveyard, and my father, old Nazareth Diabo that I hardly even knew. They called him Nazzry. He was a pioneer high‑steel Indian. He was away from home the majority of the time, and he was killed in the disaster — when the Quebec Bridge went down. There's hundreds of high‑steel men buried in there. The ones that were killed on the job, they don't have stones; their graves are marked with lengths of steel girders made into crosses. There's a forest of girder crosses in there. So I was sitting on Uncle Miles's stone, thinking of the way things go in life, and suddenly the people in the longhouse began to sing and dance and drum on their drums. They were singing Mohawk chants that came down from the old, old red‑Indian times. I could hear men's voices and women's voices and children's voices. The Mohawk language, when it's sung, it's beautiful to hear. Oh, it takes your breath away. A feeling ran through me that made me tremble; I had to take a deep breath to quiet my heart, it was beating so fast. I felt very sad; at the same time, I felt very peaceful. I thought I was all alone in the graveyard, and then who loomed up out of the dark and sat down beside me but an old high‑steel man I had been talking with in a store that afternoon, one of the soreheads, an old man that fights every improvement that's suggested on the reservation, whatever it is, on the grounds it isn't Indian — this isn't Indian, that isn't Indian. So he said to me, 'You're not alone up here. Look over there.' I looked where he pointed, and I saw a white shirt in among the bushes. And he said, 'Look over there,' and I saw a cigarette gleaming in the dark. 'The bushes are full of Catholics and Protestants,' he said.
'Every night there's a longhouse festival, they creep up here and listen to the singing. It draws them like flies.' So I said, 'The longhouse music is beautiful to hear, isn't it?' And he remarked it ought to be, it was the old Indian music. So I said the longhouse religion appealed to me. 'One of these days,' I said, 'I might possibly join.' I asked him how he felt about it. He said he was a Catholic and it was out of the question. 'If I was to join the longhouse,' he said, 'I'd be excommunicated, and I couldn't be buried in holy ground, and I'd bum in Hell.' I said to him, 'Hell isn't Indian.' It was the wrong thing to say. He didn't reply to me. He sat there awhile — I guess he was thinking it over — and then he got up and walked away."