How can there be a simple explanation as to why certain African- Americans and their whole families dress up in gaudy costumes that they have worked on for the last 365 days and then parade around three or four days each year, hurling ritualized insults and chants at one another and competing for the "prettiest" tribe in town?
The existence of the Indians, or the Mardi Gras Indians as they're sometimes called, is at the heart of the rich culture of New Orleans. One of the reasons that New Orleanians could survive and revive after Hurricane Katrina is because they all share common aspects of this strange, quasi- Caribbean, quasi- African, quasi- French, quasi- American amalgam of what is a daily way of life in AGC. (Okay, so that's four quasis- but you know what I mean.) All New Orleanians, as opposed to Washingtonians or Bostonians or people from Los Angeles, have enough in common to pull together toward a common goal, despite (or perhaps because of) a seriously flawed political and racial structure. It's as if everyone belonged to the same, highly stratified Moose Lodge or VFW.
The richest white people know who makes the best gumbo. The poorest white people know who Allen Toussaint is. The black elite dine with the white elite at Commander's Palace, and the white elite dine with the black elite at Dookie Chase's. Everyone knows where Marie Laveau and Ernie K-Do are interned (near one another in St. Louis Cemetery #1.)
And everyone knows who the Indians are.
The Indians group every Mardi Gras, and every year on Super Sunday, the Sunday nearest St. Joseph's Day, as well as St.Joseph's Day itself, which, coincidentally is today. They dress sporadically throughout the year as well, usually for social functions, or to make music with Indian musicians like Bo Dollis or Monk Boudreaux.* Jazz Fest features an Indian stage where the tribes come together to make music, usually in the form of chants backed by a heavy drum beat.
Until the early 1960's, Indian confrontations were violent. Clubs and knives were part of the costume. After the Spy Boy reported another tribe in the area, the rest of the Indians would gird themselves for an out and out battle.
This all changed through the efforts of a legendary chief, Tootie Montana. Instead of real violence, he maintained, let's have ritualized confrontations. Instead control of a neighborhood, let's see who's the prettiest. Despite Montana's best suggestions, violence would still sporadically break out, although not nearly to the previous degree.
In 2005, two months before the hurricane, Chief Montana spoke at City Hall in front the entire City Council. Once again, he pleaded for peace. He spoke to the police, asking that the Indians be allowed to parade without undue interference. He spoke to the other tribal leaders, asking for an end to violence. He spoke to the mayor's representatives, siting the Indians as one of New Orleans' greatest cultural resources. And then he had a massive heart attack and died on the spot.
On St. Joseph's Day in 2007, my friend Irving Banister, a New Orleans guitarist and living legend, led me to the home of Little Walter Cook, Big Chief of The Creole Wild West**. The Wild West is the first Indian tribe, reportedly dating back to the mid- 1800's. Irving's son Irving, Jr., known as Honey, and Honey's mother Littdell are mainstays of the tribe.
Walter's house was full of Indians with glue guns, needles, and thread in their hands, putting the finishing touches on their finery. It was one of the most amazing sights I'd ever witnessed.
That night, Irving and I joined the Indians at Second and Dryades Street, near Chief Bo Dollis' Handa Wanda Lounge for the tribal gathering. It was like a block party, if you lived on a block with fifty people dressed in feathers and beads, beating drums and screaming at each other, in a completely peaceful way. There were candy vendors, bar-b-cue grills and mounted police at the each block crossing. There was even a white Indian parading his finery. "Look at that," said one St, Joseph's night veteran to another. "That boy's crazy." Then both men chuckled.
* Sugar Boy Crawford's hit Iko Iko comes from an Indian chant, as does the title of today's blog entry
**Little Walter has recently been succeeded by Howard Miller
|Ms. Littdell Banister|
|Ms. Littdell and her son Honey|
|Spy Boy of the Creole Wild West|
|Chief "Little" Walter Cook inspects a peace pipe|
|The crowd gathers|
|Honey Banister of the Creole Wild West|
All Photographs ©2011 Breton Littlehales