Brooklyn has a long history of attracting immigrants from all over the world. Just look at the various ethnic enclaves that dot the borough: the Polish in Greenpoint, the Russians in Brighton Beach, West Indians in Crown Heights, the Italians in Bensonhurst, the list could go on and on. Yet today I want to talk about one fascinating enclave that’s tragically no more: Brooklyn’s Mohawk Indian community.
The Mohawk are not native to Brooklyn; their original homeland was the area around Schenectady, though over time they were moved to reservations in Canada and northern New York. In the late 20s, Mohawk ironworkers, renowned for their agility, were hired to construct bridges and skyscrapers in New York City. Most of these men came from Kahnawake, a reservation near Montreal. While they spent their working weeks in Brooklyn, they would go back up to see their families every weekend, a 12-hour drive. By the 30s and 40s, their families moved down to Brooklyn, settling in Boerum Hill, a traditionally Irish and Italian enclave that became known as “Little Caughnawaga”.
Little Caughnawaga was a tight-knit community, estimated at about 700 by the 1940s, most of whom lived in the same apartment buildings or mere blocks away from each other. One of the centers of their community was a bar on Nevins Street known as the “Wigwam”, where Mohawk ironworkers would discuss jobs, pick up their mail and find rides back to the reservations in Canada. There was a lunch counter nearby as well, where Mohawk women cooked the traditional white cornbread with kidney beans. A Presbyterian church on Pacific Street between Hoyt and Bond became another nerve center of the community; its pastor, although not an Indian himself, learned Mohawk, and gave sermons in the language and even translated the Gospel of Luke.
In a 1949 article in the New Yorker, titled “Mohawks in High Steel”, Joseph Mitchell said that the community “is growing, and it shows signs of permanence”. Yet by the 60s, the community began to dwindle, thanks in no small part to a rise in crime and a tough economy. Many of the Mohawk still had strong ties to their reservations in Canada and were eager to return to their homeland. Others married non-Indians and settled in more suburban areas. Although Mohawk Indians still make up a percentage of New York ironworkers, they aren’t permanent residents, and much of their community is gone. The Wigwam closed down, the Mohawk-speaking pastor has since died and the union hall where Mohawk ironworkers used to congregate moved to Queens.
Over the years I’ve seen so much of Brooklyn grow and change from what it once was. While much of this change and growth has been great for the community, it’s sad to see things go. And even if they do go, it would be a major disservice to Brooklyn’s legacy to forget or overlook them.