Monday, February 1, 2016

My Indian Red

The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is an old one, and often overlooked by tourists. This amazing cultural world has usually been hidden away from the glitter and glitz of the big Super-Krewe parades; most of America didn't know it even existed until David Simon's TV series Treme introduced us to the character of Big Chief Albert Lambreaux.

The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is said to date back to the late 19th century, when groups of African-Americans formed both the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs that still march through New Orleans today, and loosely organized "tribes" that masked in fanciful versions of Indian costumes on Mardi Gras Day. What people often tell you is that these suits resembling the headresses and garb of plains Native American tribes paid tribute to Native American people who sheltered runaway slaves; but scholarly research indicates that it's a little more complicated than that.

 What happens today, however, is that tribes compete with one another to create the "prettiest" suits, decked with feathers and intricate beadwork. The men design and sew their own suits, spending an entire year to complete a suit. The tribes roam through the streets on Mardi Gras morning, and when they meet there is a confrontation. Historically, these meetings were violent, but now the groups vie through dance, music and style. "Stop fighting with your guns, and begin fighting with your suits," Big Chief Tootie Montana once said, and he transformed the tradition, making suits in bright colors and fantastic beadwork.

Our friend Ronald Lewis, whose museum The House of Dance and Feathers preserves the artifacts and lore of this tradition, said in a recent interview, "Once you get included in the Mardi Gras Indian culture, you're always going to be included - it becomes a part of you."

A beaded patch from Ronald's collection
Ronald sewed suits for the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe under Chief Tootie Montana, then later went on to form the Choctaw Hunters in the Lower Ninth Ward. When we went to see Ronald last week, my friend Sylvia admired some of the beaded panels he had on display. "That's one of mine," he said, showing us a 1993 photo of himself in the complete suit. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. "You sew 'em by hand; you can't use a thimble, so your fingers get a thick callus from pushing the needle through."

Tootie Montana passed away in June of 2005, suddenly collapsing at a City Council meeting while speaking out against police brutality toward the paraders on St. Joseph's Day. His son Darryl is now Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe, and last night at the Basin Street Lounge, the tribe held a rehearsal.

The bar was crowded when we got there, and as we made our way into the room, it became even more packed.  The rehearsal had been listed on WWOZ, the local radio station, and it was clear that, although most of the people greeted one another like old friends, there were a lot of tourists, too - people like us who were interested in learning more about the tradition.

As the place filled up, suddenly Big Queen Gina Montana raised the shivering tambourine, and then slapped it hard with her hand. Around her, men gravitated to the center of the room, and, clapping and drumming, began singing.

There were families and kids, old ladies and little toddlers gathered around me. I was lucky to get a spot right down front by the dancers. Here's what I saw and heard:

Those two ladies are something!

As the room filled up, I began to feel a little too crowded; I had also lost my friend in the scrum. I retreated through the throng, heading for the door, where I found him and the beer he'd bought me. I stepped out onto the sidewalk with other folks who found the interior too claustrophobic.

But, oh, we could still hear the music and clapping!

Out on the street everybody was still dancing in the cool of the evening, while the cars slowly rolled past and the scent of the smoker from another bar on another corner sharpened the air.

Mardi Gras Indian suits don't appear until Mardi Gras morning. Sometimes they're kept a very guarded secret. So if anyone was looking for glitz tonight, it wasn't there - just a tightly packed crowd, some beer and booze, and some amazing dancing and music.

We'll have to wait till Mardi Gras morning!

1 comment:

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Aha! Didn't have to look to far into the internet to find more info about the Indians. I'm playing blog catch up so I was pretty sure if I kept going back you would explain in more detail. Thanks for these posts. Not sure if I'll ever make it to Mardi Gras but this makes me really want to try!