Joseph Pierre "Monk" Boudreaux sits on the bed of his temporary apartment Uptown. The complex is on South Front Street, near the Mississippi River, and Boudreaux has been staying there while repairs are being made to his mold-, wind- and flood-damaged home over on nearby Valence Street.
Secluded in these temporary digs, his small, thin-lensed glasses perched on his nose, sewing needle in hand, he threads yellow and red beads into designs on a beige piece of circular canvas. The lighting is sharp despite the cloudy glass of the ceiling fixture, and the sun has just set with a little glow creeping in through the window. A portable TV sits on a dresser with the sound of a sitcom turned down low. There are other beaded pieces of canvas in various states of completion surrounding him on the bed. Some hint at the beginnings of designs on them. Some are further along, with colored cloth ruffles on their edges. A few pieces are completely finished, mainly from his suits of previous years. Somewhere in a case, with his traveling suit, is one of the great iconic Mardi Gras Indian images -- the patch of an Indian head with braid and crown that was the cover for the first Wild Magnolias recording back in 1974.
The 64-year-old pauses to find a cigarette filter to thread on top of the beads to hold them in place as he picks up more of the small beads. These are the tasks that Boudreaux churns through, focusing on details big and small, just as he has done for more than 40 years.
He looks up and says in a low, melodious voice, "This isn't just a thing we do. It's in our blood."
Each year in the late fall or early winter, depending on the date for Carnival, Monk Boudreaux will start planning his suit and the suits of his tribe. Monk is the Big Chief of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians, an Uptown institution. He will map out each design, or patch, for himself and for his six grandchildren who follow in the tradition. He will buy the seemingly endless amount of beads, feathers, ruffles and canvas to sew and fasten together into several unique New Orleans treasures -- artful yet supremely functional -- a Mardi Gras Indian suit. Then, in the early hours of Fat Tuesday 2006 -- as people wonder whether Mardi Gras Indians will be masking or parading this year -- as friends, family and fans gather to wait by his house on Valence Street in the 13th Ward, Boudreaux will emerge in full regalia with his tribe to march through the back streets of Uptown.
They will make stops at certain bars and parks (like the Sportsmen's Lounge and Shakespeare Park) before returning home in the late afternoon or early evening. This Mardi Gras ritual is something Boudreaux has been doing either as a part of other tribes or with his own since he was 12. Right now, on this evening in mid-January, Mardi Gras is several weeks away, and Boudreaux still has plenty of sewing to do.
"It's not just masking," he repeats, "It's a true feeling that runs deep inside."
Boudreaux was born into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. His grandmother was part Choctaw, and although ordinarily it is not obvious, it is easy to see his ancestry when he puts on his suit for performances on Fat Tuesday. The feathers and beads bring out his cheekbones, which are reflective of the strong cheekbones that many Native Americans have. Boudreaux started sewing when he was a child. His father used to mask, and the younger Boudreaux would help him.
"Back then," he recalls, "they used to use costume jewelry or anything that shines. Sometimes they would flatten out beer caps and put them on their suits. Then they found out about bells and put them on their suits. With bells, if you hear an Indian coming around five in the morning when everything is quiet, you might hear him five, six blocks away. Everything they found, they used it." He laughs a little at the thought of those old suits.
Boudreaux made his first suit when he was 12. "I beaded three patches, but I needed more than three. I took a shortcut and used some glitter and glue and what-not." He laughs. "Didn't work. The glitter fell off. You got to sew to keep it together."
He first started "coming out" with the White Eagles tribe, whose big chiefs included such legendary Indians as Big Chief Fletcher, Robbe and Robert Thomas. Although these men are gone now, their legacies remain, not only because of their beautiful suits, but also their leadership, dignity and the way they taught and handed down the tradition.
"I was Chief Scout," remembers Boudreaux. "Chief Scout is more like a beginner. He's always with the Chief, watching and learning what the chief is doing. He's like the Chief's messenger. I did that for two years. Then I graduated from Chief Scout to Second Spy Boy."
Each member of the tribe has a specific role to play as the tribes roam through the neighborhoods each Carnival. The Spy Boys (who are usually grown men) are the first to proceed so that they can scope out whether other tribes might be present along the given route. There is also a Flag Boy, whose job is to hold, show and protect the flag or decorated wooden poles that bear the tribe's name. The Wild Man, usually the most animated Indian in the tribe, stays near the chief to protect him. The Wild Man holds a club and makes sure that the path for the Chief is clear and that no one gets too close.
Depending on the year or the tribe, positions and roles vary both in number and definition. For instance, the Golden Eagles don't have a Wild Man or a Chief Scout these days. Tribes adjust depending on who is masking during any given year.
No one is quite sure how, why or when African Americans started sewing suits and coming out as Native Americans on Mardi Gras. Most scholars theorize that Native Americans helped escaped slaves by hiding them or taking them in before the Civil War. As oppressed peoples, both groups seemed to sympathize with each other.
As he takes a break from sewing, Boudreaux pulls out the book The American Indian -- Special Edition for Young Readers by Oliver LaFarge and opens to a page with a painting from the Peabody Museum of Ethnology at Harvard University. The scene features several Choctaw Indians standing around a campsite in Louisiana. Standing with them is a similarly dressed African-American boy. The painting is dated 1735.
Boudreaux shows this to underscore that "the tradition came from a long time ago when blacks and slaves lived with the Indians, and they learned from the Indians and the Indians learned from them."
Musician Donald Harrison Jr., whose late father was the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, replaced his father as Big Chief before starting the Congo Nation about four years ago.
Given the retention of African traditions in New Orleans, it stands to reason that, Harrison notes, "The call-and-response pattern of Mardi Gras Indian music is African, not Native-American. The beadwork of at least Uptown Indians is closer to Yoruba traditions (of Nigeria) than to Native Americans."
This unseasonably warm January weekend winds up on a Sunday night at Tipitina's. While for most people a Sunday evening is that transition period between the previous week and the next, for Mardi Gras Indians during the pre-Carnival and Carnival seasons, Sunday nights mean Indian practice. Increasingly rare today, chiefs used to call their tribes together in houses or tucked-away bars to practice the songs, chants, dances and signals that comprise the lore of Mardi Gras Indians. People both black and white are filing into Tipitina's -- not the normal spot for such occasions, but the club is temporarily sponsoring Indian practice so that Mardi Gras Indians can gather and sing. (The club stopped hosting the practices later in January.)
Boudreaux stands poised at the microphone on the floor at the front of the stage. He is wearing his trademark fishing hat and an overshirt. To his left, several people -- some Mardi Gras Indians, some musicians, and some both -- have started furiously playing congas and a bass drum, and Boudreaux is singing verses to the song "My Big Chief Got a Golden Crown." His singing provides a contrast to his overall personality.
Most of the time, Monk Boudreaux is a low-key, mellow person. He rarely gets upset or loses his cool. These days, he'd have good reason; besides the 2 feet of water that flooded his house, which will have to be gutted, Boudreaux learned that several of his old patches and his bass drum were stolen. Yet there he stands, unfazed. Then, once he gets in front of a microphone, an underlying intensity comes seemingly out of nowhere.
Tonight, Boudreaux is singing something fierce. His vocal style is a cross between a low hum and a chant. As is part of the Mardi Gras Indian style, he improvises lyrics as the other singers gather around him to chant the chorus. As the song builds, his delivery becomes even more sharp. He goes on for 10 or 15 minutes, singing stories about the adventures he and other chiefs have experienced parading on Mardi Gras, as the furious percussion pushes him on. He sings about "going way downtown to the battlefield / And I won't bow down and I won't kneel," and "Mardi Gras morning at the break of dawn / I'm gonna grab my pistol and grab my gun," and "Big Chief hollerin' on a mighty day / here he comes get the hell out the way!" as the other Indians repeat "my Big Chief got a golden crown" in a call-and-response pattern.
Reading the verses on paper, they seem overwrought and exaggerated. Channeled through Boudreaux's tenor voice, they tell epic tales of the streets of New Orleans, as worthy of remembering and retelling as Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, their heroes as epic and mythological as Achilles or Hector.
Practice continues for a little more than two hours as other Indians take their turns singing. Boudreaux takes breaks, moving between the microphone and the bar to say hello to people and conduct business. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation has provided money for feathers and beads for any Indians who lost their work in the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Boudreaux is the point man for this, gathering names, addresses and numbers for any Indians who want to participate.
Boudreaux is the obvious choice for this; he knows most of the Indians and, in a milieu in which ancient rivalries and perceived slights can make Indians wary of each other at best and violent toward each other at worst, Boudreaux is liked and respected. In his liner notes for Boudreaux's Mr. Stranger Man CD, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis called him "the real deal ... the keeper of the history and tradition."
Though he rarely talks about it, Boudreaux's years of running the streets and masking Indian have given him the wisdom and ability to make peace, keep the peace and instantly size up any person approaching him. He is a wise man in the traditional manner. Other chiefs and Indians approach him to say hello, catch up on news, and sign their names to the yellow legal pad that he circulates for the foundation's relief money. Finally, around 11 p.m., practice breaks up and everyone heads into the night.
"I'm gonna sing my song," Boudreaux, invoking part of the Indians' unique and sometimes ambiguous lexicon, explains later at his apartment. He's leaning over his sewing machine, fastening ruffles to some patches. His practiced hand runs the material under the needle quickly, but deliberately. "Indian songs don't have endings," he says as he sews. "I can start a song off at practice and sing it for five, 10, 15 minutes, and then someone else comes on and puts his lyrics to the same background. Then another comes in and does the same. The songs go on and on."
Boudreaux has been recording his stories as songs for more than 30 years. His work on the Wild Magnolias records in the 1970s is overshadowed by fellow Big Chief Bo Dollis, but his song "Shoo Fly" on their eponymous first album in 1974 ranks among the best Indian songs ever put on tape. He performed with the Wild Magnolias until 2001, when he left after a dispute over the band's business practices. Since then, his solo career has blossomed. He has performed on and/or released several albums, including 2002's Bury the Hatchet (Shanachie) with Anders Osborne, 2003's The Sea Saint Sessions (Telarc) with Tab Benoit, and his own Mr. Stranger Man (Shanachie, also 2003), with the Golden Eagles. Recently he has been performing in the opening slot for Galactic on the band's Coup De Gras tour in the western United States, and has been, in Boudreaux's words, "tearing it up!"
On all of these recordings and performances, Boudreaux has been singing the traditional, Indian songs, but he also has been adding to the Indian canon by writing new songs based on his recent experiences. Those include "Bury the Hatchet," which details in Indian fashion a fight between rival tribes in the late 1990s in A.L. Davis Park, and "Looks Like Trouble," a song about one of Boudreaux's chiefs in the late 1960s who lost his flag and ran out on his tribe, leaving them to fend for themselves.
When asked about his albums, Monk says, "There are still a lot of places I haven't explored, but so far so good." After a period of estrangement, he and Dollis, who have known each other since they were children, are friends again.
Boudreaux pauses to reach for another ruffle and patch. "I'm telling old stories, but I'm also telling stories about what's happening now. I'm talking about people who are masking now and what they do. Indians are singing about their experiences." As he says this, he continues to pass the ruffles under the needle. Boudreaux has had this sewing machine for 10 years. The hum of the sewing machine and the clack of the needle provide their own soundtrack for Boudreaux's words.
Several days later, Boudreaux is off to Iris Avenue in Jefferson Parish. His destination: Jefferson Variety, "largest supplier of unique Mardi Gras Beads, Novelties and Costume Fabric in South Louisiana" (as its sign boasts), and currently the main supplier of feathers, jewels, and beads for Mardi Gras Indians. He pulls up to the door and walks in. To most people, he looks like your average, older African-American man, with lined coat and fishing hat with an upturned brim. However, when he enters the large second room of Jefferson Variety where the accessories are sold, the sales people hail him with respectful greetings and inquiries -- "Hey, Mr. Monk! How you doing? What do you need this year?"
The main room of Jefferson Variety is a Mardi Gras junkie's nirvana. There are beads, jewels, feathers, hats, bolts of cloth from bright blue to leopard print, and other Carnival accoutrements everywhere. The imagination can run wild with ideas for costumes. Jefferson Variety has anything that any Mardi Gras Indian could want to fashion a suit, and that's the reason that Boudreaux has been shopping here for years. Today he is here to pick up a couple more pieces of canvas, several more sets of feathers, and a dozen red ruby plastic jewels. He makes his requests and then talks with the women behind the counter. Apparently some of the Indians have been calling the store saying that they're supposed to get feathers from the previously mentioned program of the Jazz & Heritage Foundation.
One woman yells from the back, "They keep calling and we keep telling them that we can't give them to them. They have to go through you." Boudreaux laughs at this, saying, "I've been telling them to sign up for the last month. Last week an Indian came up to me at practice and asked, 'Monk, can I get on that list to get some feathers?' I tell him, 'You've been coming to practice each weekend and you haven't signed that list?' I don't know."
Another woman brings out the feathers. Boudreaux looks them over with the seasoned eye of an expert. She leaves them on the counter, and goes to cut the pieces of canvas. When she comes back with them, Boudreaux picks them up with his hand. The pieces are heavy and strong. Once he puts the beads, ruffles and feathers on them and attaches them together, they could weigh anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds. That's a lot of weight to walk around with on one's back for several miles on Mardi Gras.
Boudreaux pays for the materials and walks back out the door. Depending on the design, an Indian suit can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. On the wall near the entrance are photos of Mardi Gras Indians and assorted royalty from Mardi Gras krewes. Despite the socioeconomic differences and separate Mardi Gras rituals, their suits look very much alike.
Back home, Boudreaux has returned to working with the needle and thread. There are still many small patches to sew for his grandchildren's suits. Then he'll focus on his suit. Boudreaux says that he gets his inspirations for drawings from books like the Oliver LaFarge book or some other reference books that he has on hand. Sometimes he'll just buy a bunch of colors and see what works.
"It takes a long time to sew a suit," he notes. "A person might have to sit down every day for 365 days, you hear me? And sew every day." His voice rises, as if to underscore his point. "Then you might make it. I know people who have tried. They say, 'Well, I tried to do it, but it takes too long.' It's the true feeling, the spirit in you that guides you."
In the popular mythology of Mardi Gras Indian culture, it is taken as fact that the day after St. Joseph's Night in March -- the other time of year when Indians come out -- Indians start sewing their suit for next year. Although some Indians indeed might do that, most take a break and then start up again at some point before Carnival. Boudreaux says that it would take him seven months to make a suit from scratch, but he sews two or three new patches for himself each year and reuses others. This lends a sense of continuity to his suits from one year to the next.
Every Big Chief's approach is different, of course. For example, Uptown suits are often known for their beadwork and multiple aprons, where downtown suits are recognized for being more three-dimensional; their patterns "come off" the suit. While Boudreaux's suits have been lauded for their intricate beadwork (on small and large scales), the late Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, was known for his elaborate construction.
Victor Harris, Big Chief of the Seventh Ward's Fi-Yi-Yi Indian tribe, is known for his African-inspired suits with animal prints. "There are many stories about how long it takes to sew a suit," Harris says. "A lot of people this year lost their pieces in the flood. I lost mine, and I started last week, but I'm going to make a new suit no matter how many people say it's impossible.
"Mr. Monk is doing it," Harris continues. "He's a serious person. He's protecting the culture. I respect him because he's a true person who believes in what he is doing."
Like Boudreaux and many Mardi Gras Indians, Harris believes he doesn't have a choice about sewing: "I'm compelled to do it. I have to do it, especially this year. This year my suit has a million beads. I have a hard time breaking away from sewing. The depth of my suit is so great that I get into a trance and I have to pull myself out of it. The suit pull me in, and then I have to pull myself out. It holds me."
This is a common sentiment among the Mardi Gras Indians, many of whom in the days before each Mardi Gras have been known to stay up all night sewing. "You start sewing when the spirit hits you," Boudreaux says, "and you aren't going to stop."
On Fat Tuesday, Boudreaux will not get up early because he will not have gone to sleep. As the Indian song goes, "He sewed all night long." By the time the day is breaking, he will have finished up any last-minute details on his and his tribe's suits. Then he'll get the kids dressed in their suits before putting on his own. Building an Indian suit is complicated business. Not only does it have to be beautiful, but it also has to be functional. Boudreaux has to be able to walk several miles in his suit, so the weight has to be distributed evenly over his body and it has to be sturdy enough not to fall apart as he is greeting other Indians or parading through the neighborhoods.
Boudreaux's Indian suits are masterpieces. Often there are several layers, or aprons, on top of each other, each showing a different scene. There are portraits of Indians dancing or sitting and images of daggers. The intricate beadwork portrays Native American faces with single lines of oval beads indicating distinctive noses on their faces or musculature along the arms. Circular designs cover his hands and shoes. The jewels stud the suit in patterns. Tall plumes of brightly colored feathers form fans over his head and back. He wears a black wig with braids that fall on either side of his head. Finally, after the children and the rest of the tribe have exited the house and he is dressed and ready, he emerges out the door to the righteous yells and encouragement from the crowd gathered outside.
For those immersed in New Orleans street culture, this is the highlight of Mardi Gras -- to see the Big Chief come out in all his finery to lead his tribe on Fat Tuesday. Nothing else in the Mardi Gras routine -- not Rex's arrival on Lundi Gras, not the Bourbon Street Awards at St. Ann and Burgundy streets, not the Bass Parade or Jewlu or the Ninth Ward Marching Band -- can touch the moment when the Big Chief comes out in his glorious suit and sings the traditional Indian hymn "Indian Red." Maybe it's such a profoundly moving moment because, as the lyrics of the Wild Magnolias song "New Suit" proclaim, "We're the soul of Mardi Gras."
A once-fractious, intensely territorial Mardi Gras Indian tradition has metamorphosed over the decades from sometimes-violent confrontations to symbolic competition among Indians to prove who are the better costume designers. Indians who have the best costumes are said to be the "prettiest." It is a friendly competition because few will dare to come out if they don't look good. Boudreaux says he never frets over what other Indians may say about his suit: "I know that I have a pretty suit already."
Each year Boudreaux chooses a color on which to base his costume. Recent years have seen him in green, purple, pink, orange. He has a color for 2006, but he wants to keep it a little bit of a surprise this year.
There are few things that compare to witnessing this rainbow of feathers, beads and jewels reflecting the daylight as the Big Chief moves down the street with his tribe, singing and banging on percussion instruments. Some Indians go all over town to meet up with other tribes. There are certain areas that traditionally have been meeting places for Indians. For downtown, the scene has been Hunter's Field at St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues, or the intersection of Orleans and Claiborne. Before the Louisiana Superdome was built in 1971, an area near there was a preferred Indian meeting ground.
When Boudreaux leads the Golden Eagles from his house, "I go where the spirit moves me," he says with a grin, but Boudreaux always goes by another traditional Indian meeting spot. "I always go by Second and Dryades," he adds, referring to the former location of the late, lamented H&R Bar, home to many Indian practices. "They all going to come around there." The scene at Second and Dryades streets on Mardi Gras is riotous in a typically New Orleans fashion. There are Indian tribes coming from every direction over the course of the day as tourists, street-culture enthusiasts, and Central City residents hang out to drink, while the smoke from home barbecue pits hangs over the neighborhood. The Golden Eagles will stop there for a while, wind its way around Central City, and then head back to Boudreaux's house on Valence Street by the end of the day.
Not six months after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood scattered thousands of New Orleanians across the country, the question arises of how many Indians there will be to meet this year. Weighing heavily over this year's Mardi Gras is the devastation of the hurricane and the subsequent depletion of the city's population. Even before the storm, fewer people seemed to be masking each year.
Mardi Gras Indian culture is so secretive that membership is hard to quantify. Estimates of the number of existing tribes range anywhere from 20 to 30, while membership within those tribes can range anywhere from three to 30. The Golden Eagles boast nine members. No one seems to know how many have returned, but judging from the sheer number of displaced African-American New Orleanians, it's likely many are still waiting to come home.
The storm also followed a spring and summer that highlighted the sometimes-strained relations between the Mardi Gras Indians and the New Orleans Police Department, which came to a boil nearly a year ago on St. Joseph's Night when officers broke up the gathering amid unsubstantiated accusations of Indians carrying firearms. Arrests were made, and the situation grew so heated that Indians represented by, among others, Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana, went before the City Council on June 27. Montana suffered a heart attack in the middle of his speech and died soon after. Losing such a looming figure in the culture during such a delicate time in its history makes some wonder if Katrina has just accelerated the inevitable.
Donald Harrison says no: "There are a lot of guys who truly believe in Mardi Gras Indians. They're moving in the direction to keep it alive. I hear there are a lot of guys coming back, and the ones who don't will continue it in different cities."
Victor Harris is more circumspect: "It's hard to predict the future of Mardi Gras Indians. As for me, Katrina has given me extra initiative. People have said there will be no more culture after the storm. That makes me want to do it more. You can't give up something you love. There are still a few people doing it."
Back on South Front Street, needle and thread in hand, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux remains defiant. "The Indians never left," says Boudreaux, whose image will grace the official Congo Square poster for this year's Jazz Fest. "They're here, and they'll be back. They're sewing wherever they are, and they're coming back." He is in his apartment, sewing on the bed and starting in on yet another patch. There is still a lot of work to be done before Mardi Gras.
He studies the pattern as he says, "Mardi Gras day was the day the old people could come out and be who they were inside. The storm hasn't changed the Indian tradition. It's going to come back strong. You've seen Indian practice. You know. You'll see on Mardi Gras. People will be here."
He looks up and smiles as he puts yet another bead over the thread and pushes the needle through the canvas.
- Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, performing at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge on Jan. 27, as part of the Louisiana Crossroads series.
- Boudreaux and Alligator June work on a suit in 1978. Boudreaux made his first suit when he was 12. "I beaded three patches, but I needed more than three. I took a shortcut and used some glitter and glue and what-not." He laughs. "Didn't work. The glitter fell off. You got to sew to keep it together."
- After performing on such landmark Wild Magnolias albums as 1993's eponymous release and 1994's They Call Us Wild, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux formed his own band with the Golden Eagles for the 2003 Shanachie release, Mr. Stranger Man. The latter release featured appearances by Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Tab Benoit and frequent collaborator Anders Osborne, who produced the album.
- Michael P. Smith
- "I'm gonn sing my song," declares Boudreaux, pictured here at a Golden Eagle practice at the Glass House in Central City in 1980.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Boudreaux performed at Mardi Gras Indian practices at Tipitina's earlier in the year, alternating between singing and serving as a point person connecting Indians with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's relief efforts.