Cherice Harrison-Nelson is a fighter. She's a third-generation Mardi Gras Indian, council queen of the Guardians of the Flame, daughter of the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., and sister to Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. Her activities with her tribe are already an essential battle to keep indigenous New Orleans street musical culture alive. But Nelson, a quarter-century veteran educator in the New Orleans public school system, isn't content to merely maintain the tradition. Her goals also include tracking, organizing and recognizing the often under-the-radar activities of the Indians. Since the community was shaken up by Katrina, she has taken the initiative to pass on the traditions to children through programs that incorporate indigenous culture into her arts curriculum at a local elementary school.
For the past seven years, Harrison-Nelson has, mostly singlehandedly, operated the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. Her organization attempts to archive Indian history, storing suit designs and recordings on Indian practice and performance; each year, she hosts a ceremony where prominent Indians are honored for their contribution to the community and inducted into the Hall of Fame. A sideline of her work, though, proved to be particularly beneficial after Katrina. She'd built a database of more than 600 names of active Indians and was able to use it after the storm to connect with them and help figure out their storm-related losses and needs. Harrison-Nelson says the net loss suffered by the Indian community as a whole was practically beyond measure. From sodden suits to lost master tapes from her own collection of her father performing to a special sewing table built by a Creole craftsman for working on Indian suits, the artifacts and documentation lost to the community were a serious blow. With the help of some local students, as well as the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, of which she is a member, Harrison-Nelson has been able to make contact with many members of the community and do some grassroots case management -- helping Indians with everything from affordable medical care to housing.
Harrison-Nelson originally started the Hall of Fame program in 1999 at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School. She intended to teach the students about their community traditions, introduce them to tradition bearers, and integrate the social support of a community and its long-held customs into the kids' regular lessons. Because of damage to Haley, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony this past August was moved to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Harrison-Nelson herself currently teaches at the Wicker School, a Louisiana Recovery District elementary school in Treme. When the coming spring semester begins she will be bringing in her neighborhood tradition bearers full force. Throughout the fall, African percussionist Luther Gray incorporated his drumming into math classes for all grades. Soon, members of the Guardians of the Flame and Trouble Nation tribes will begin visiting language arts classes. And representatives from social aid and pleasure clubs, including the Big Nine -- one of whom is a former third-grade student of Harrison-Nelson's -- will bring their traditions from the street into the classroom.
"That's done through the P.E. department," she explains. "They teach parade traditions like dancing, dirges, parade protocol and manners. If someone bumps into you, you don't start a fight. The thing about it is that they really want to come in the schools, and share the culture with the children. And some of the younger chiefs -- one would make all the young men stand up, and anyone who didn't have their shirt tucked into their pants had to go back outside and put it in. Then you get third graders saying to each other, 'Man, put your shirt in your pants, chief says to put your shirt in your pants. School is a microcosm of society. You don't just have to learn to read, you have to learn to get along with people."
Their influence is most widely felt in language arts classes, where the spectacle of the Indians and social aid and pleasure club marchers galvanizes kids to engage with what's being taught.
"It gives the kids a wealth of experience to write about," she says. "Writing a thank-you letter to a visiting artist is a more connective way of learning that than copying a letter out of a textbook and correcting errors."
Harrison-Nelson is also continuing a family tradition in more ways than one -- a recent book drive she started at Wicker is a tribute to her late father's love of reading.
"Donald Harrison Sr., read 40 books a year," she says. "He always loved reading to kids." The book drive brought in more than four thousand books from donors in California so far -- they'll be celebrating with a holiday luncheon with a group of Big Chiefs and Big Queens this Thursday -- and although the school still needs money for small things like tambourines and drums for the children's workshops with Indians, it's a start.
- Percussionist Luther Gray works with children at Wicker Elementary.