Now, he has a co-worker he says is less than impressive despite having a PhD: “You can’t take a chicken swimming – that’s kind of what we’ve got going on.”
A new (and easier) source of income
New York’s steep rents are a challenge, but until the financial crisis of 2008 a steady diet of high-paying construction work made it surmountable. Local 40’s Mr. Walsh says the collapse caused banks to shy away from the low-interest loans they had been giving contractors.
But the ailing economy may not be the biggest threat to the ironworker tradition. Prof. Alfred says that heading south is losing its attraction in Kahnawake, which has a population of 8,000 and is about 15 minutes from downtown Montreal.
He grew up with James Marquis, Pete’s younger brother. Both joined the U.S. Marines, and when Mr. Marquis retired in 1991 after the first Gulf War, he couldn’t find a steady job in Kahnawake for eight years, so he went into ironworking. However, his youngest brother, Cory, chose a different path – he’s “in cigarettes.”
“Now, everything you need, you can have it in Kahnawake,” Mr. Marquis says. “They don’t have to do what we have to do – I don’t have to do what I do.”
A 2005 survey conducted by Tewatohnhi’saktha, the Kahnawake Economic Development Commission, found that since 2000 household income generated right on the reserve had increased by no less than 50 per cent, and now represents three-quarters of all income. Meanwhile, income earned south of the border – mostly through ironwork – has fallen by half, to 12 per cent of household income.
Cruising up the I-87, Mr. Marquis shakes his head. He used to squeeze four co-workers into his back seat for the drive back to Kahnawake. About 15 years ago, they went into the cigarette business instead. “Guys could make a faster living,” he says. “Some people make thousands, some made hundreds of thousands, some made millions. Some are still making millions.”
The industry started in the early 1970s, gaining traction because retailers on the reserve were exempt from Quebec taxes, says John Bud Morris, chief executive officer of Tewatohnhi’saktha. Now, residents do everything from manufacturing to packaging, distribution and retailing.
Mr. Marquis says a long stretch of road on the outskirts of the reserve, forest when he was younger, is now known as “Las Vegas” for the rows of luminescent tobacco stores and gambling houses. People set up small cigarette stands outside their houses, almost like lemonade stands. One tobacco trader lives in a towering, neo-Romanesque mansion, and last Halloween reportedly gave trick-or-treaters $20 bills instead of candy.
“Many factors affect Kahnawake’s participation in the ironwork trade,” Mr. Morris says. “Arguably, the limited opportunities … has been the biggest contributor.”
Although the migration is dwindling, few are willing to predict a complete demise. “We’ve been able to adapt over 100 years,” Mr. Delisle says. “I think there’s always going to be Mohawks working construction in New York City.”
But Prof. Alfred warns that the tradition depends on teamwork. “There’s a culture there and, like any culture, if not enough people practise it and if it’s not transferred generationally, it’ll die out.”
Mr. Marquis is to retire in a few years, and says he will miss New York. But will the city miss the Mohawks? Prof. Alfred is skeptical: “New York being New York, it’ll probably be forgotten in a minute.”
‘We used to make men’
At 3 a.m., we reach the border and before long the car rumbles over railway tracks and Mr. Marquis announces that we have entered Kahnawake. He slows down, pointing out the cigarette stands, casinos and advertising that did not exist a few years ago. “We used to make men here,” he says. “Now, we make women.”
He pulls up to a house, and Cam drags himself through the front door. The night before, his grandfather had asked, “How would you feel about living like this?”
Cam belongs to a wireless world where the road to New York seems long and fruitless. He didn’t answer.