Skip Navigation

Native Americans connect with ground zero ironworkers


11/21/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York
NEW YORK (UMNS) - They came to ground zero to make a connection, Native American to Native American.

They came bearing the scars of another terrorist attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, to seek out those whose tribe had helped create the twin towers of steel and now were removing the beams that had melted into unnatural shapes.

And they left, the volunteers from the United Methodist Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC), with the conviction that "our bonds of love are stronger than the bonds of hate," according to the Rev. Anita Phillips.

Phillips led a team of six women, in New York from Nov. 12-20, who gained access to the former World Trade Center site after receiving training and credentials through the Red Cross. There, they worked in shifts, trying to connect with the Native Americans, primarily Mohawk, employed as ironworkers.

A second OIMC team had come to New York a few weeks earlier, making initial contacts and participating at listening posts set up in Manhattan churches by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which sponsored the visits of both teams. Among the tribes represented were Cherokee, Omaha, Osage, Iowa, Mississippi Choctaw, Ponca and Euchee.

OIMC, which sent pastors to respond to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, formally established a disaster response team in 1999 after tornados struck the cities of Moore and Oklahoma City, according to the Rev. David Wilson, director of promotions and interpretations. Later, the team took action when severe ice storms struck Southeast Oklahoma.

In New York, Phillips and her team did make contact with some Mohawk workers, both on the day and night shift, forming an immediate sense of connection. "It was a moving experience for us to tell these brothers that we felt so proud of them for their work," she said.

The men told the United Methodist volunteers how some of them had worked round-the-clock, at first, in their attempt to find survivors at the World Trade Center site and described how the red-hot steel had reformed into alien shapes. "They were at some of the points of greatest risk just because the way the steel had been misshapen as it fell," Phillips added.

The risk for site workers continues at what is now considered the longest commercial building fire in United States history. Plumes of smoke continue to rise from the debris and steel beams still emerge red-hot.

For decades, the Mohawks, both from New York and Canada, have helped construct the skyscrapers of New York. The Mohawks are renowned for the ability to walk high steel beams with grace and balance. "It's a matter of identity and great pride in the tribe," explained Phillips, whose group met a few who had originally worked at the twin towers.

But the OIMC volunteers also talked with firefighters, police officers, construction workers, National Guard and others at the site. "The vast majority of our time was spent in chaplaincy with any person who was there at ground zero," she said.

It was difficult, she noted, not to have flashbacks to the Oklahoma City bombing and feeling "a wounding beyond words" while standing at the site. But Phillips said she also knows, from the Oklahoma City experience, that healing will become "a real thing in people's lives," replacing the despair of current times.

As part of a native culture that faced genocide in the past, she finds it important that God called her to a place where hate led to another attempt at genocide. Their presence, she said, demonstrated "the power of reconciliation through the heart of God and the power of the hope that we find in our faith."

Phillips arrived in New York with pictures of the burning towers and fleeing, terrified people etched in her mind, but returned home with different images. "This experience has replaced those awful visions," she said. "We now have such an alive sense of the power of God in this place."