The game of Cowboys and Indians currently playing out in the streets of New Orleans is a quintessential example of this city once again acting as its own chief nemesis when it comes to matters of indigenous cultural appreciation and development. The Cowboys in this drama are the police, and the Indians are, of course, of the Mardi Gras persuasion. They're at war again. And the timing couldn't be worse.
Back in the mid-'90s, elders of the Mardi Gras Indian nations were lamenting what they saw as the imminent demise of their cherished traditions. For young men in the community who were expected to fall in behind the elders and assume their roles in the tribal hierarchies, the prospect of spending most of their weekends (and most of their money) hunched over sewing machines in order to properly represent their tribes simply could not compete with New Orleans' vital and kinetic hip-hop scene and new avenues of entertainment.
Big Chief Jolly got nuthin' on Juvenile.
Then something happened. I'm not sure I could tell you why, but I witnessed it firsthand: Two, three years after Katrina, there were more Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans than before the storm. The reformation of all the Uptown and downtown gangs plus the arrival of new upstart gangs from all over town seemed to defy previous lamentations that New Orleans' old-school street culture was irretrievably scattered across the country. The message born of the preponderance of young faces — and rarer still, young women's faces — peering out from under the elaborate headdresses and war paint was unmistakable: The Indians weren't ready to close the reservation just yet.
And now we get to the dark side of this good news/bad news scenario: With the resurgence of the Indian's lively and oft-disorganized public rituals came another more unsavory and sadly predictable tradition: the New Orleans Police Department bringing the hammer down on the parties.
The scene this most recent Mardi Gras in Central City was all too familiar: The Seminole Warriors were singing and dancing and shouting out. Crowds gathered. The cops moved in, sirens blaring, cherries flashing, tires screeching and a general sense of mayhem invoked. As happened many times before, accounts invariably tell us the Indian elders are harassed, forced to remove their costumes and the tribes are (temporarily) disbanded and sent home under threat of arrest.
It was a scene eerily similar to a public showdown between the cops and the Indians in the summer of 2005, just weeks before Katrina struck. In response to that ugly encounter — screaming children, taunts, physical aggression, crowds scattering in chaos — Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Tootie Montana addressed the City Council, looking for relief from what he and other Indians called continual harassment and intimidation by the NOPD.
A universally respected tribal elder — and the unofficial ambassador of the Mardi Gras Indian Nation collective — Montana, overcome with frustration, pounded the speaker's podium and announced: "I want this to stop!" He then immediately collapsed, dead of a heart attack in the council chamber.
The point doesn't seem to have gotten through. In fact, in the years that have followed, tensions between police and Indians have not improved and perhaps have gotten worse. The cops say the Indians aren't playing by the rules — and they have a point here. The Indians routinely ignore city ordinances requiring permits for parades and street parties. The cops say the parties get too big, too loud and, yeah — too crunk.
The cops and other public critics of the Indians — and there are more than a few — have come to resent the Indians' casual flouting of city permit laws, particularly when it comes to providing parade route maps and details. But that's just the thing: There is no route. And there are no rules. And this is why a unique accord needs to be crafted by a forward-thinker from City Hall — which doesn't seem in the offing; Ray Nagin's administration has chosen its usual course of indifference to deal with this controversy.
The thing is, the whole mystique behind the Indians' elaborate street theater is that observers who want to get near the action don't actually know when and where the tribes will be gathering. For instance, this Friday, March 19, is St. Joseph's Day, the biggest nighttime event of the year for the Indian Nation. Some 20 to 30 gangs will dress and prep all over town in the same fashion as float riders in a Mardi Gras parade.
The entire premise of the unfolding drama is based on assorted spy boys, flag boys and wild men to prance and sneak up and down streets, communicating by whistle and flag, literally playing an advanced-form adult version of hide-and-seek. Eventually, the Big Chiefs are led to each other by their underlings and the dance is on, accompanied by flurries of insults and challenges that might make even the saltiest of rappers blush. The Big Chiefs argue over who's prettiest like bantams strutting the barnyard. Then the steely veneers of the Chief and his underlings melt away, hugs and handshakes are exchanged, and the tribes wander off in different directions, looking for more tribes to throw down against.
So, the map thing? Yeah, it doesn't really work. So, what's the solution? To lock it all down with rules and designated parade areas would wind up making Indian culture a museum piece rather a vibrant, living organism. The whole pageantry and ritual would disappear. The point of it all would die.
So what should the cops do? Look the other way? Stand down? Lord knows, if something were to go wrong at one of the Indian jamborees, people would complain like hell if there were no police around to restore order. As is the case a lot around here, the cops are kinda stuck between the law and the long-running, nearly sacred tradition.
With no easy answer. And a big ole party scheduled this week and everyone holding their breath just a little.