If you live in New Orleans (or have an HBO GO password), you are probably familiar with some aspects of Mardi Gras Indians. The suits, music, diction and songs. It’s a tradition passed down orally among the communities that practice. While the tradition’s visibility has increased, it is still intimate and personal for those who partake. So I talked to some of the keepers of the flame of this tradition, as they keep the practice alive and pass on the torch.
Chuck Perkins grew up in New Orleans, and has performed with Mardi Gras Indians for his “Voices of the Big Easy” project. When asked about his first encounter, he said, “It’s like asking how I was introduced to red beans and rice. You can’t recall the time when you first ate them, they’re just one of those things that have always been around.” Perkins said he “sung a lot of Indian songs [as a kid]. When we were kids and we’d play sports, we’d travel by buses, and we mostly sung songs before the game. Most of the songs we’d sing were Mardi Gras Indian songs. As part of our ritual.”
I met Big Chief Juan Pardo of the Golden Comanche at a coffee shop in Mid-City. Pardo is a smart man, talking as much with his mouth as his hands. He said, “[Mardi Gras Indians] came from the story of an oppressed people finding a way through community to show that they weren’t the ugly thing they were called. That they are the most beautiful thing that there is. And they found a way to express that, outside of the culture that they weren’t accepted by.”
The House of Dance and Feathers is a museum in the Lower Ninth Ward. It is at Ronald Lewis’s house, and the museum rests in a trailer in Lewis’s backyard. He greeted me outside his house as I parked, letting me in through the backyard. The museum is aerated and I could hear the trees swaying back and forth outside, so as I looked at the different masks and flags I had the feeling that the museum was breathing on that overcast November day. Lewis opened the museum because he “did everything else with the culture, so I decided to keep the culture.”
“[The tradition] has never been torn down, to the point where we had to go back to the stone tablet and restart,” Pardo told me. There is no stone tablet to go back to. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux has been masking since the late 1960s. He has sons, daughters and grandchildren who mask. As Big Chief Monk Boudreaux told me in a phone interview, “Once the tradition stops, it dies.” It’s why so many Mardi Gras Indians can trace their lineage. Because the stories, the songs and the tradition have to be passed on, to outlive the Chiefs.
When you walk into a Mardi Gras Indian practice, the first thing that hits you is the percussion. The beat envelopes you the second you pass through the door. The practice was at a bar that had two stories and a pot of red beans and rice going. The stage had as many percussion instruments as could fit on there, but everyone still found a way to move. On the floor, everyone was dancing and moving to the beat.
"[Mardi Gras Indians] came from the story of an oppressed people finding a way tto show that they weren’t the ugly thing they were called - they are the most beautiful thing that there is." - Big Chief Juan Pardo
A young boy tried to play along, shaking the tambourine with two hands, trying to get the same sound out of it that he was hearing. A young man was leading the entire practice through the song “Shallow Water.” According to Big Chief Alfred Doucette, “Shallow Water” is about “when the slaves were escaping from their masters, they ran from the woods and they ran though the creeks that the Indians call shallow water. He can go through the woods without putting any tracks and the Indians, they gave them lodging and helped them to continue to escape.”
When the young man sang, it showed how the torch is always being passed, the story is always being told. Never to be taken away. Something that lasts longer than any page, than any compact disc. Something that can’t be lost once it’s been uncovered. Mardi Gras Indians are more than just feathers; they’re a tradition. It’s why “Indian Red” was sung at the city council meeting when Tootie Montana fell while defending the Mardi Gras Indians to the mayor. It’s why Victor Harris came back to New Orleans right after Katrina and started beading and sewing his costume, sleeping on the floor of a house in an empty city, preparing for the next Mardi Gras and staking a claim to what is his. You sacrifice your life for this passion. Because it is bigger than you.
Cha Wa is a band led by Joe Gelini. They are a jam band of musicians fronted by Mardi Gras Indians. Gelini said that when he first stumbled upon the Mardi Gras Indians, he fell in love with the drumming and wanted to partake in any way he could.
Irving Banister, or Honey, is the Gang Flag of the Creole Wild West. Honey is one of the Mardi Gras Indians who lead the band (along with J’Wan Boudreaux, Monk’s grandson). Honey is a running faucet of information on Mardi Gras Indians. It might as well be written in his DNA. He sat down with me and showed me the differences in beadwork between uptown and downtown. How personal styles affect the suit (his bunched and bulked up because he sews freehand). When people ask him how to start masking, he tells them “what to get, show them how to sew.” The more people from his community carrying on the tradition, the better. As Boudreaux tells his grandchildren in the documentary Bury the Hatchet, “The older people before us, they want us to continue, that’s why they taught us what we know today.”
Outsiders are more and more interested in the culture, but struggle to adapt and partake in something they can enjoy but can’t spearhead. Everything about Mardi Gras Indians is a story; it is a tradition of stories acted out by a people nostalgic for a past they never saw but have lived and breathed all of their lives. As Lewis told me about his museum, “Everything in here is a story, about people and what they do.” And nothing sounds more Mardi Gras Indian than that. A man at d.b.a. told me at the Cha Wa show that “Indian culture is hard to understand, but the best way to understand it is to accept it all, all the bad and all the good.” So, as outsiders, let’s enjoy a culture that has always been part of the backdrop of our unique city. For the Mardi Gras Indians, let’s hope that the tradition continues to grow, from the gatekeepers’ lips to their children’s ears.