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January 30, 2005

Balancing Selection?

I've always loved this story:

In the year 1886 the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build the Victoria Bridge and it would span the mighty St. Lawrence River and connect Montreal to the Kahnawake Reserve.

They contracted out the job to the Dominion Bridge Company. In exchange for being allowed to run the railroad through Mohawk Territory, Grand Trunk arranged for Dominion to hire some of the Mohawks as laborers to work on the bridge site. This decision would have a huge impact upon the lifestyle of many Mohawks, an effect that remains to this very day.

Their first job was to supply the stone for the large piers that would support the bridge.

When their shifts ended, they would hang out on the bridge watching the other workers to see what they were doing.

Even young Native children became curious and soon they were climbing all over the span, right alongside the men. The workers noticed that the Mohawk's agility, grace and sense of balance made it seem as though they had a natural disposition for heights.

When management became aware of this, they hired and trained a dozen tribal members as ironworkers. The original twelve, all teenagers, were so adept at working at high altitudes, they were known as the 'Fearless Wonders'.

They would walk on narrow beams several hundred feet above the raging river and yet it appeared as though they were just on a casual walk along a forest path.

From another source:

As one company official later wrote, "It was quite impossible to keep them out." Indeed, "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."

What made the Mohawks such superb high steel workers remains something of a mystery. The legends assumed some kind of genetic advantage, but there is little evidence of this. Joseph Mitchell, in his scrupulous New Yorker article, "The Mohawks in High Steel," thought Kahnawake children in Brooklyn "have unusual manual dexterity; by the age of three, most of them are able to tie their shoelaces"óbut Kanatakta, Executive Director of the Kahnawake Community Cultural Centre, suggests that it's more "a question of dealing with the fear."

What do you think accounts for this? Is it genetic? Cultural? Either way, it is pretty unusual.

(Cross-posted at Rishon Rishon)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:08 AM