Mardi Gras Indians wear their new suits on Fat Tuesday and Super Sunday. Photo by Cheryl Gerber It is a Monday night at the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue. Tipitina's is quiet -- a strange sensation given the great music that usually pours forth from its doors. But these doors are open. Onstage the back lights are bright, silhouetting the rows of boxes sitting on the stage. At the foot of the stage, several people sit at a long, folding table. Quint Davis, the director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Joseph "Monk" Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians, are organizing the proceedings. Longtime friends, Davis and Boudreaux have gotten together with Norman Dixon Jr., the director of the Norman Dixon Sr. Foundation, to help out the Mardi Gras Indian nation by purchasing feathers for Indians to use in their suits and crowns. Tonight, after months of Indians from around the country calling Boudreaux and Davis to order particular colors and types of feathers for each suit, Indians are coming in to pick them up. Assorted members from gangs such as the Creole Wild West, The Wild Magnolias and others come up in the line, give their name, and Davis calls it out to his compatriots on the stage who then search through the boxes to find each bag of feathers. The feathers will allow them to finish their costumes.
No one is quite sure how many Mardi Gras Indians there were in New Orleans before the storm. Mardi Gras Indians tend to be independent, and each year the numbers change as different people form new gangs or sew suits and others don't. After the storm, the amount is even harder to determine due to the forced exile and displacement of the population after the failure of the levees after Katrina. When asked how many Indians have contacted him, Boudreaux smiles beneath his fishing hat. "Last year, there were 90-something Indians signed up for feathers. This year it's 165."
That is a good sign, but each Indian has his or her own complications regarding Katrina as well as getting a suit ready -- from sewing a suit to getting together with the tribe to prepare for Mardi Gras or Super Sunday (March 18).
It is now March of 2007 or midway through year two post-Katrina, or post-apocalypse as many are unhappy to call it. A concern for many is the unique culture of the Crescent City, a culture that includes St. Joseph's Altars, the Decadence Festival, oysters Rockefeller, parades too numerous to name and Carnival. One of the most colorful and unique aspects of New Orleans culture is the Mardi Gras Indians, African-American men and women who sew bright bead, jewel, plume and canvas costumes each year to commemorate their ancestors and the alliances formed between them and the Native Americans who inhabited south Louisiana. As with other aspects of New Orleans culture, everyone wonders whether the Mardi Gras Indian culture and the Mardi Gras Indians themselves will make it through this crisis. Most Indians are trying to maintain their traditions while negotiating all of the other aspects of life after Katrina.
The current fortunes of Mardi Gras Indians run the gamut in the same way that the fortunes of all inhabitants of New Orleans do. On the neutral ground outside Tipitina's stand the Ninth Ward Navahos. Underneath the street lamp, the gang members swap stories and talk. Big Chief Derek McGee says that almost all of his tribe is here. He smiles emphatically, "I didn't mask after Katrina. I was living in Dallas. F--- Dallas. I couldn't get beads to sew with. It was hard to find the materials until I got home. The art supply places in Dallas didn't carry the particular beads I need to sew." His gang nods in agreement. "If you're masking Mardi Gras Indian, home is home," he continues, "You can't do the true tradition unless you are here on the streets of New Orleans."
As he finishes, his Wild Man, Alonzo Moore, steps up. "I was having trouble putting a suit together," he states, "We all have trouble. I lost everything. It's a fight to get back home and a fight to make a suit, but God is allowing me to make a suit this year. I'm glad to be back home." Cars whiz by on Napoleon. Their headlights illuminate Moore's eyes, but there is a light there even when the cars are not passing.
It seems to be this way for many Indians. Charice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame, now runs the Young Guardians of the Flame. "We came out of a trailer in front of my mom's house," she laughs, "but my son, who usually comes out with us, is still in school in California. Another guy who masks with us is in the FEMA trailer park in Baker. He has six kids so he has other priorities."
Harrison Nelson acknowledges that many Mardi Gras Indians have to make such choices. "Many people chose to be a Mardi Gras Indian, and that's a lifestyle choice. Contrary to popular belief, all Mardi Gras Indians are not destitute or without resources or options. I know several Mardi Gras Indians who aren't masking this year because they're trying to get back here or trying to repair their homes. And many Indians are in the building trades, so they are working all the time. It takes a lot of physical stamina out of them." Despite this, Harrison-Nelson has faith in the future. "The tradition is still strong. It's not going to die out. Masking is very spiritual. Being an Indian is a way of life. People won't give that up."
Tyrone Casby agrees. "There are hardships," he reflects, "but people are back." Casby is the Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters, the sole Indian tribe on the West Bank. He says that his gang has been back since January 2006. "Everyone's back except my Wild Man, who is in California," he says over the phone. Casby has been masking for more than 30 years. He is, as the song goes, "an old time Indian." "We're based on the West Bank in Algiers, and we didn't have much damage. We put our new suits together and paraded both in 2006 and 2007. We're coming out for Super Sunday and the West Bank Super Sunday on April 22."
The Golden Comanches also paraded this year and will parade on Super Sunday. Spy Boy Juan says that he has members of the tribe in Atlanta and Houston. "They came in a couple times, but they couldn't finish their sewing this year. Mardi Gras this year was closer to pre-Katrina days. We could pass down the street and there are some people there, some civilization. It's not like Mardi Gras last year. This year you go down a side street and find some people." Juan laughs when asked if he knows of other Mardi Gras Indians who are displaced. "I'm sure there are Indians out there, but I don't know who. They got Mardi Gras Indians in every state in the U.S. now."
Two of the Mardi Gras Indians still displaced by the diaspora are Big Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows and Big Chief Estabon "Peppy" Eugene of the Golden Arrows. Goodman has been in Austin, Texas, since the storm. Since his enforced exile, he has been spreading the word about Mardi Gras Indians to uninformed Austinites. "I've been educating people about Mardi Gras Indian culture and how it's a part of New Orleans culture and how we give tribute to the Native Americans. I've been sewing year round to make costumes. It's a positive vibe. I mean, you teach children to sew and it's like you take a gun out of his hand and give him a needle and thread. It gives them a positive outlook on life."
Goodman acknowledges that it is different to be a Mardi Gras Indian outside of New Orleans. For instance, he hasn't been doing a traditional Mardi Gras Indian practice. "It's not like New Orleans, where I can call up people and get three tambourine players and a conga player. I don't think a practice like those in New Orleans can be formed anywhere else. Since I don't have any of my people here, I'm practicing my music with the musicians who are around me all the time. I'm also playing with Cyril Neville's Tribe 13 band."
Big Chief Peppy evacuated to Irving, Texas, and has been there ever since. He definitely misses New Orleans. "I'm living Mardi Gras Indian whether I'm in New Orleans or not," he exclaims over the phone. "I feel it in my heart every day. In October, November and December, I get low spirits because that's when Indian practice is going on and you get to fellowship with all the fellows you don't see all year long."
Peppy thinks that the tradition is strong and will remain so, but he worries about how it is being passed on. "To be a Big Chief," he says, "you need to know what is going on in this culture. It's not just putting on a costume. You have to learn every position in the gang. People have to take care of the youngsters and teach them so that everyone knows what is going on at all times. I don't see it dying because the youngsters who are involved in it love it, but they've got to go through what they have to go through to be who they can be. So many are taking shortcuts."
The newcomers need teachers in the same way that up-and-coming jazz musicians need the wisdom of the elder musicians. The risk of the older ones not passing on New Orleans traditions, whether it's Mardi Gras Indians, music, or food recipes, to the younger folks is something that everyone concerned with New Orleans fears.
However, as Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters proclaimed it underneath the streetlight across from Tipitinas, "I'm New Orleans. I'm going to be New Orleans until they close my casket, and then I'm going to have New Orleans dirt around me. Mardi Gras Indians is our culture. Mardi Gras Indians started with slavery. It's been going around for 150 years. If one person gets on the corner and hits a tambourine or a cold drink bottle or a can, it's Mardi Gras Indian."