Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs Stand Spectacular, Tall, and Proud

Doing their part to keep New Orleans culture alive

That phrase holds a different meaning these days, as it did splashed across the cover of the local weekly, Gambit, headlining a piece about the growing encampment of some 200 homeless underneath the freeway, just a small portion of an estimated 12,000 cast-out residents. And not far from view on Claiborne was the darkened façade of the Lafitte Housing Projects, its doors and windows covered with steel plates. It seemed a cruel indignity, some mash-up of Dickens and Orwell, when, five days before Christmas last year, the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a HUD-ordered plan to tear down some 4,500 units of public housing. I was in New York, watching CNN as residents assembled outside by barricades and police lines. "If you know New Orleans, you'll know how dilapidated these housing developments are," said anchorwoman Kyra Phillips. "They've been crime-ridden, very popular for drug-running. . . . According to the mayor, this is an effort to clean up the city, have better housing for folks."

Meanwhile, like some bizarre B-roll footage, we saw a live shot of New Orleans residents being turned away with pepper spray; one woman fell to the ground after being Tasered. But we heard only Phillips. The residents were voiceless, as they'd been in the debate about demolition and rebuilding of public housing in a city hard-pressed for affordable homes. On Mardi Gras morning, Gerard Lewis, Big Chief of the Black Eagles, led his tribe in a prayer outside the B.W. Cooper projects—once their coming-out spot, now slated to be destroyed.

As the week rolled on, and Super Tuesday's primary results proved inconclusive, sure enough, New Orleans made its way into the election-year discourse. "Suddenly, candidates are paying attention," read the subhead to Thursday's front-page coverage in The Times-Picayune. Barack Obama spoke at Tulane University that day, mentioning slaves at Congo Square and their "dances of impossible joy," but not public housing. However, the subject was raised later in the day at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, in a panel discussion of architects who bemoaned the loss of sturdy and historically significant structures.

From the audience, historian Nick Spitzer commented, "Let's not lose sight of these as what they are: homes." Marshall Truehill, pastor of the First United Baptist Church and former chairman of the city's planning commission, mentioned how much the housing projects meant to Mardi Gras Indian culture and vice versa. "When you destroy neighborhoods, you tear apart a culture too," he said. "Once you tear down these buildings, you can't put them back."

The next day Jerome Smith, an activist who runs the Tremé Community Center, compounded the thought: "Even though we had a good turnout for Mardi Gras, it's not the same, and I wonder if it ever will be. The great sorrow is that the people from those projects, especially the children who have been cast out of this city, can't receive those rituals they way they're supposed to."

The Sunday before Mardi Gras, Donald Harrison had told me he was going to wear his suit, but that he would stay close to home, holding court as it were. He wasn't going to take to the streets, to "come out." I told him I didn't believe him. "Wasn't ritual important?" I asked.

We waited and waited, a group of us, in front of the Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church on Governor Nicholls Street. Finally, near dusk, Harrison arrived, driving a yellow Penske truck filled with the parts of his suit. As the sky darkened, he made his entrance from church to street, arms folded, concealing the detailed beadwork in the image of his father, feathers rippling as he walked, chants and beats following him. He looked spectacular, and moved tall and proud.

The following weekend, he was playing saxophone alongside pianist Henry Butler. Harrison, who is not only a Big Chief but also a world-class jazz musician, talked to me beforehand about the connections between Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and the drumming of Art Blakey, his early employer. He related the beadwork of his suit to the intricate patterns in the Afro-Caribbean music of pianist Eddie Palmieri, whom he was about to join on tour. He spoke of the lessons of leadership he soaked up as a Big Chief, which he passes on to the musicians he teaches through the local Tipitina's Foundation.

"So you came out after all," I said.

"Yeah," he shot back. "Ritual matters."

Since Katrina, Harrison's attitudes have transformed. He's no longer comfortable with the term "Indian," which is a complicated matter. But his purpose remains clear. "I'm going to continue to mask in beads and feathers," he added. "I'm going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But that's the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?"

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