Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs Stand Spectacular, Tall, and Proud

Doing their part to keep New Orleans culture alive

"It's amazing how much joy and hope these beads and feathers bring."

The Sunday before Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Donald Harrison Jr., Big Chief of the Congo Nation, son of Big Chief Donald Sr., lay on the living-room floor of his mother's house in the Ninth Ward, cutting leopard-print fur in a pattern as he spoke. Nearby, a sofa and chair were covered with beads and rhinestones, along with ostrich and turkey feathers that had been dyed a golden yellow. Harrison was preparing to "mask," to enact the city's least-understood tradition, and these days, perhaps, its most essential: Mardi Gras Indian culture. These rituals, which date to at least the mid-1800s, are an African-American homage to the Native Americans who once sheltered runaway slaves and to the spirit of resistance.

The calendar was pointed in its irony this year: Elsewhere, February 5 marked Super Tuesday. All attention was squared on would-be elected leaders with practiced battle cries, competing to prove themselves fierce and attractive. But in New Orleans, Super Tuesday was Fat Tuesday. Uptown, in the limelight, the various well-publicized krewe parades (a throng that included Hulk Hogan, King of Bacchus) lorded over the city, riding high on floats and tossing down beads. But on less-traveled streets, more in the shadows and announced mostly on a need-to-know basis, Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, possessors of strictly inherited thrones, asserted their authority. Dressed in 10-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide feathered and beaded suits and accompanied by "queens," "spy boys," and others, they were announced by drumbeats and chants, lending voice and hope to New Orleans residents who'd been all but ignored this primary season. The Big Chiefs competed with words, too. And in a ritual that once frequently did turn violent, they battled to win hearts and minds, competing through elaborate suits to "kill 'em with pretty." The presidential candidates were selling change, but in New Orleans, a city all but ignored by that lot (except for John Edwards, who stood in front of the Ninth Ward's Musician's Village as he dropped out of the race), the message from these local leaders was continuity.

Sunday night, when most Americans were watching the Giants and Patriots do battle, Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas—son of Allison "Tootie" Montana, known as "chief of chiefs"—was completing his own suit out in Kenner, the suburb he's called home since Katrina drove him out of the city. Such work is all-consuming, not to mention expensive and physically demanding. It's not uncommon for a chief's hands to be scarred from needle cuts; while affixing one section of his crown to its backing, Montana had run a drill into his finger.

The brass-band second-line parades endemic to New Orleans culture draw on the same African-rooted bamboula rhythm as do Mardi Gras Indian chants, derived from Congo Square, where enslaved Africans were once permitted to dance and drum on Sundays (and for which Harrison's tribe is named). These days, that site, on the fringe of the French Quarter, sits behind a gate to Louis Armstrong Park that's been nearly always locked since Katrina. On Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras, the New Orleans Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force, representing some 30 clubs, held its third-annual unified parade at that spot. The police had tried to cancel the event just days earlier, the latest in a series of city-sponsored challenges to this tradition. But aided by the ACLU, the Task Force took the city to federal court—the second time in a year that they've resisted and scored a legal victory. The clubs were saying, in effect, what the Indians sing in their traditional song "Shallow Water": "We won't bow down."

Early Mardi Gras morning, I was back in the Ninth Ward, waiting for the Young Guardians of the Flame, led by six-year Big Chief Kevin Cooley Jr. and organized by Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Donald's sister. This year, Cherice wore orange, red, and yellow. Last year, her suit was emblazoned with a beaded likeness of her father; above it, covering her heart, was a beaded American flag, its stars represented by crystals shaped like tears. "Something deep within your soul calls you to do this," she said. "And you've got to do it, for your mental and physical survival, and for the welfare of those around you."

Midday, Victor Harris of Fi-Yi-Yi showed up in front of the home of Joyce Montana, Tootie Montana's widow. I recalled how he'd looked fierce in his African-inspired green-and-red mask two years ago, when the wake of Katrina threatened to swallow all such traditions. "They spit us all over this land," he shouted then, amid drumming. "They told us we had to evacuate. But they didn't say we had to stay away." Now, Indians in a rainbow of colors passed through, did mock battle, embraced, moved on. A small crowd had assembled. Around 3 p.m., Darryl Montana came out of Joyce's front door, looking regal in his tall, broad, lavender, feathered suit, which rippled gently in the growing breeze as he headed up to Claiborne Avenue, where Indians generally convene on Mardi Gras, beneath the overpass for I-10—"Under the Bridge," as they call it.

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