9/11 Mohawk Eagle Dance Memoir

Jerry “Thundercloud” McDonald and Tonya Frichner


I was on the freeway to Atlantic City on September 11, 2001, when someone phoned my friend who was driving to tell of the catastrophe. As far as I know I didn’t lose anyone I was acquainted with nor related to. But I was involved in a particularly poignant way with the Mohawk High Steel Workers who both helped build the Trade Center Towers and were now called upon to unravel the metal labyrinths the tragedy left behind.

I was friends with Kamala Cesar who was a member of my Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in the late 60s in Berkeley, California. She had gone on to a career of traditional study from South Indian Dance Master Balasaraswati, performing and then teaching it, and establishing the studios of Lotus Music & Dance in New York over the forty years since the disbanding of the theater company. One of the teacher-performers at her studio, Jerry “Thundercloud” McDonald, a blood member of the Mohawk Nation (as is Kamala) was deeply impressed by a performance of The Dance Theater of Harlem he had seen, and got the idea to do a similar presentation of an adapted Mohawk Eagle Dance within a modern dance context. Now he needed an overall vision as well as scenario and director of all but the actual dances, so Kamala asked me to come up from Philadelphia to New York to meet him and his wife Tonya Frichner, and see how I might be inspired to get involved.

I arrived at the appointed restaurant, and during lunch learned that Mohawk Indian Jerry was also a High Steel Worker, one of those tiny ant-men walking in the sky along girders on skyscraper construction sites with death-defying grace. He described in detail truly harrowing experiences he and other High Steel workers had had on very narrow steel beams often forty or more stories high, since it was discovered by construction engineers that Mohawk Indians would go where other workers wouldn’t dare. They were able to glide like tightrope walkers on four-inch wide girders, riveting giant steel beams in place by hand-guiding them to their perpendicular frames, often without more than flimsy safety belts, or out in space with nothing at all below them. I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck as he described all this. But here was a perfect dance piece: the presentation of a traditional Mohawk Eagle Dance within a scenario of modern dancers interpreting movements of the workers, even using the actual language of gestures with which they communicate instructions from ground to sky, guiding and helping, as well as imitating the teetering balancing and sliding along movements of these brave native athletes.

We interviewed and taped some of the Mohawk workers and more importantly their long-suffering wives and relatives, who openly expressed their often fearful anguish for their men going off to work, constantly praying for their safety. This was now an established family tradition among many Mohawks (as well as others), often comprising all the men in a family, they having found a money-making niche with little competition. (An interesting detail: families with more than one High Steel Worker would not allow them all to go to work at the same time, in case one died, as happened famously at an extension bridge site in Canada early in the century, where all the men of families that had gone to work were wiped out by a single accident.) The resulting tapes were then edited, with repeats of key words and phrases in rhythmic (Steve Reich-like) segments, to make up part of the musical component the modern dancers in overalls and hardhats would dance to. Mohawk Elder Tom Porter would give an opening invocation. The Eagle Dance would be danced by Jerry and his wife Jeannie, in gorgeously white-feathered array, and actual Steel-Workers who were also traditional drummers and singers would accompany them with drumming and singing in the Mohawk language. The modern dancers led by Jaan Freeman were New York’s extraordinarily inventive dancer-choreographers, including one lithe soloist who flew and then caught a huge Malaysian eagle kite I found in a Philadelphia import store and suggested he try incorporating into a dance.

We were meant to premiere the piece on September 22, 2001. It was all arranged, and we were ready. Then came September 11th. The premiere had to be canceled until a later time. I traveled by train up to New York to a meeting on the 15th to decide what to do, and walked the long, shocked street from Penn Station at 8th Avenue to a little studio on 58th Avenue to meet with the cast. The Mohawk steel-workers were at Ground Zero. It turns out that a number of the older workers had helped construct the Twin Towers in the first place, and they were now being called upon to help untangle the wreckage they knew so well, girder by girder, these eagles, these high steel acrobats of courage and daring, our own ravaged indigenous natives building and unbuilding our modern skyscrapers, now in toxic birds’ nests of twisted metal and human carnage, at the hell-center of a tragedy brought about by fanatical hatred fueled by America’s financial and deeply biased and implicated Empire.

Eagle Spirit: A Tribute to Native High Steel Workers was finally presented in New York many months later. Many of the native dancers and singers who performed in the evening, in a darkened theater, with their drums and feathers, had spent their day working in the toxic dust and wreckage at Ground Zero.

(original notice)

Eagle Spirit: A Tribute to Native High Steel Workers

This collaboration between Mohawk dancer/ironworker Jerry McDonald, African-American modern dancer Jaan R. Freeman, and the poet Daniel Moore honors the Mohawk high steel workers who have built much of the New York skyline. This work combines Mohawk traditions with contemporary music and dance, bringing together the nimble steps required to walk on swaying beams 500 feet above the pavement with dance that is 1,000 years old. Guest artists include the Mohawk Singers, the Thunderbird Dancers, the Onondaga Nation Smoke Dancers, and the Akwesasne Women Singers. Mohawk Elder Tom Porter will open the program with ironworker stories and traditional teachings of the Longhouse.

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