Isaac "Ike" Edwards was quite surprised when he learned that he will be honored this Wednesday at the Fourth Annual Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame ceremony at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School. "I was a person who never liked to be up front," says the 78-year-old Edwards, who masked Indian in the 1940s and '50s. "I was always a person who stayed quiet in the background."
While Edwards never aspired to be an Indian chief, he filled Indian ranks for a dozen years, with some of the most notable gangs in New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian annals. As a teenager, he masked with the first Indian gang, the Creole Wild West (then led by the renowned Brother Tillman), and rose to the position of flagboy with the tribe. But Edwards, along with about 15 or 20 other Indians, became discouraged with the Creole Wild West as their aging chief began hitting the streets later and later on Carnival day.
"You know, we were young and we wanted to come out early in the morning," explains Edwards, who along with the others left the gang to join the Golden Blades. That association lasted just one year before Edwards left and formed the White Eagles with the now-legendary Robert "Robbe" Lee and Lawrence Fletcher. Edwards is perhaps most noted for co-founding the influential gang, which originated at an Uptown barroom in 1948. The White Eagles once boasted as many as 50 to 60 members, and spawned a host of other gangs. It has been led by such notables as the late big chiefs Robbe, Fletcher, Donald Harrison Sr. and the recently deceased Big Chief Jake Millon.
"Everybody from the neighborhood used to mask with us," remembers Edwards. His role in the revered gang is one of the reasons he is receiving the distinguished Crystal Feather award.
"In West Africa it is a tradition to honor the elders," says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, teacher and Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame curator. (Harrison-Nelson is also Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Indian gang and daughter of the Guardians' late big chief, Donald Harrison Sr.) "It is important to honor those who went before," she says of Edwards' induction. Nelson believes it is valuable for the students to celebrate the Mardi Gras Indians as cultural heroes. In turn, the Indians have the opportunity to share their traditions in an academic setting.
During Wednesday's ceremony, Edwards will walk down a long "red carpet" of paper stretching across the school's playground that serves as a special path for the Hall of Fame inductees and award winners. The young children, who have learned about the history of the Indians throughout the school year, will watch and participate in the annual ritual. Edwards joins more than 400 Indians as a member of the school's Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and is one of five Indians receiving the Crystal Feather award this year. The other honorees include Big Chief Ronald "Buck" Baham of the Seventh Ward Warriors, Haley alumni Chief Markeith Tero of the Trouble Nation, Big Chief "Little" Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters and the late Arthur Feldon of the Yellow Pocahontas. Other awards go to outgoing Mayor Marc Morial, Jackie Harris of the New Orleans Music Commission, photographer Morris Jones and the Mardi Gras Indian Council's Bertrand Butler.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," says Edwards of the school's interest in teaching youngsters about the Mardi Gras Indians. He'd also like to see more children learn how to sew and design Indian suits -- although today's elaborate outfits are quite different than the ones Edwards created. Back then, he explains, Indians wore decorated vests over bare chests and arms.
"We used to love to be out there naked, with just an arm band, no shirts or nothing," Edwards says with a laugh. Their crowns were made from turkey feathers purchased from local poultry stores; if they got white ones, they'd dye them various colors. Indians also headed to junkyards to shear off decorations from old beaded dresses to use for their designs. "I was noted for my beading," boasts Edwards, adding that they'd decorate their tennis shoes with little bells. "You could hear an Indian coming for three or four blocks."
Although Edwards retired from masking Indian in 1952 when he re-enlisted in the Army, his memories and love of the traditions remain strong. He recalls, for instance, when a fellow White Eagle, Bernard Lomax, wrote the now-classic song "Shallow Water" and sang the verse in Creole. Edwards also remembers when the Indians masked every Saturday night from Carnival to St. Joseph's night.
"It was a beautiful thing back in that time," he says.
- "You could hear an Indian coming for three or four blocks," says Isaac 'Ike' Edwards (left) of his inventive Mardi Gras Indian decorations, pictured in this 1951 photo with the late Bob Bertrand.