Viewed from afar, the commanding structure of Our Star of the Sea Catholic Church was made even more impressive as a crowd of friends, family and Mardi Gras Indians gathered on Sat., March 16 to honor Gerald "Big Chief Jake" Millon. Millon, who began masking Indian in the early 1960s and led the esteemed White Eagles Mardi Gras Indian gang since 1965, died March 5 at the age of 58.
The size and diversity of those assembled in and outside the St. Roch Ave. church provided evidence of the great respect bestowed on Millon at the time of his passing and throughout his life. Despite the often-competitive nature that prevails in the Mardi Gras Indian community, Big Chief Jake's funeral and procession drew Indians from throughout the city -- Uptown, downtown, across the river -- to the services.
"The man was a leader and respected all Indians no matter what position they held," says Sylvester Francis, curator of the Back Street Cultural Museum. "So many people honored him because with or without a (Mardi Gras Indian) suit, he was a man with integrity."
"I just want to keep the old traditions going," Millon once said in an interview. Due to ill health, Millon was unable to mask Indian for the last several years. Nonetheless, he remained active with the White Eagles, joining his gang on the streets and for its annual Jazz Fest performances.
Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, who met Chief Jake some 40 years ago, remembers an Indian Super Sunday a few years back, when Millon had just been released from the hospital. Though he was supposed to take it easy, the big chief soon made his way into the middle of his tambourine-wielding tribe. Davis recalls that Millon began singing at the start of the parade at Bayou St. John and never stopped until the procession reached its destination at Hunter's Field on St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues. "He could sing forever," says Davis.
Agrees Francis: "Jake had a leader's voice. He knew all the songs and he knew what they meant."
Observers believe that most -- if not all -- of the 35 to 40 active Mardi Gras Indian gangs were represented at Big Chief Jake's funeral service, which has been hailed as the largest Indian memorial service in the tradition's history. During the mass, a beautifully feathered Donald Harrison Jr. of the Guardians of the Flame tribe played a moving saxophone solo of "Closer Walk with Thee." Indians who had gathered on the church's stairs and adjacent street sang "Indian Red" as the casket passed through their ranks. Feathers of all colors blew in the spring breeze as the long procession, led by the Treme Brass Band, moved through the neighborhood to its first stop at Millon's mother's home, before making its way to the Treme Community Center.
Many of the Indians paying honor to Millon this day say they "came up" under this influential chief, learning the Indian traditions of sewing, beading, singing, signaling and dancing from him.
"Jake was current in people's experience," says Davis, who says Indians at the service often told him that it was Jake who had taught them how to build a suit and play Indian. "He was somebody that was here."
As chief of the White Eagles, a gang that has been led by such notables as the late Robert "Robbe" Lee, Lawrence Fletcher and the Guardians of the Flame's Donald Harrison Sr., Millon stuck close to the "old-time" Indian customs. He and the White Eagles sang classic songs like "Shallow Water" and "Golden Crown," backed strictly by percussion instruments. An inductee of the Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School's Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, Jake shared his knowledge of Indian lore with the students and all who sought it --including other Indians, followers and the media. If one wanted to talk Indian, Big Chief Jake was the man.
"Some people are just meant to be chiefs," says Davis. "Jake is an irreplaceable loss."
Twice during the funeral procession, a group of Indians raised Millon's casket in honor high above the crowd. The chant "Big Chief Jake" echoed as the Indians marched through the streets that Millon knew so well. As Indians have been doing for more than a century, those on parade told their story in song. On this day, the tale that rang through the air was of a special chief of the White Eagles: "Big Chief Jake wore a golden crown. ..."
- Earl Perry
- Observers believe that most -- if not all -- of the 35 to 40 active Indian gangs gathered to honor Big Chief Jake Millon.