I am a big man, some even find my presence intimidating, so I know it was a strange sight to see: 200-plus pounds of Blackness bowing down to a burnished brass-colored, soft-spoken, neat but not flashily dressed, African-American male. But, there it is. Or was. Kalamu on the ground at Tootie's feet.
Tootie Montana was a culture bearer worthy of the highest respect. What he did was never done before, and will probably not be done again. It was not just more than 50 years of masking. It was not just setting a record for consecutive years of masking. It was not just constantly being the prettiest. Although all of that is true.
I bowed down to Tootie because he used our culture to stop the violence.
Mardi Gras Indian culture was no walk in the park. Hatchets and guns used to be more than mere props and decorative accoutrements. When they sang "Meet The Boys On The Battlefront," they were not just nostalgically whistling Dixie, as do so many who claim fidelity to a bygone era but who are warriors only in their imaginations.
Tootie looked at his world as it was and decided to make it better and more beautiful. He was no police. He was not a politician. He didn't hold political office, nor control a major corporation. From the perspective of all of those indices of modern social status he was just an ordinary-looking common laborer in New Orleans who religiously went to work every day.
But there was something inside of him that was extraordinary, truly beyond the average. Tootie was determined to confront and change the climate of violence in his home town. And he did. Tootie made peace within a culture that gloried in its tradition of war.
There is no police chief or politician who can say that they have stopped the violence in New Orleans. Tootie Montana stopped the violence among the Indians. He lived for peace and he died ... for peace!
He was literally in the forefront of the war against violence. Most New Orleanians have no understanding about that aspect of Tootie Montana. That is why Tootie was at City Hall in the Council chambers on Monday, June 27, 2005. Crazed policemen had attacked the Indians on St. Joseph's night and the Indians were not about to submit to that bullshit. The battle between the official forces of law and order, and the Mardi Gras Indians is historic, but you will notice, the Indians keep on coming. They are not afraid. And the least afraid of them was Tootie Montana.
Even in death, he continues to lead the way. He died on the battlefield. He died fighting. His death challenges all of us -- will we die fighting the good fight, will we die standing up for our beliefs, when we go, will it be in motion, confronting the bad, working to establish the good? Throughout all of his life and even in his death, Tootie Montana set an example.
Celebrate him as an artist, a master of the needle and thread who brought a third dimension to costuming. Celebrate him as a singer -- which is why those near him when he fell immediately broke out in chorus, singing Tootie's signature song: "My Indian Red." Celebrate him for his leadership ability, for holding together a gang for damn near the whole of the last half of the 20th century. Celebrate Tootie howsoever you will, but never forget: Tootie Montana was the man, the only man, who stopped some of the violence in New Orleans!
- Michelle Elmore
- Tootie Montana at Hunter's Field on Super Sunday 2004, the last time he masked Indian.