Part III: The Mardi Gras Indians
Ghosts reside off of Rampart Street and through the arches of Armstrong park, walled off from the rest of New Orleans by a tall wrought iron fence. After walking under the Art Deco lettering, a series of echos greets each visitor. In the middle of the paved walkway that continues St. Ann street is a sculpture of a second line band. Turning to the left, there is a lightly graveled clearing leading to the bronze commemoration of the paved circle that is Congo Square. There are a handful of small plaques and statues that attempt to explore the history on this walkway. If you look at the ground as you are walking, you can see names engraved on the stones that lay on the ground. They are the monikers of the great musicians who once called this area home. Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Betchet, and Jelly Roll Morton are only a few of the musicians who are honored, even though they are etched in a space that once housed working African American families displaced by the City of New Orleans.
Until the urban renewal movement of the mid 20th century, more than 800 families lived in the 32 arce space in the back of town. Even though the neighborhood wasn’t wealthy or opulent, it was the second oldest neighborhood in the city filled by people who had lived in the area for generations. Like the Title I clearances of Robert Moses in New York City, these families were all but forced from their homes by the city government with no housing to replace that which they were losing. Like Moses’s Lincoln Center project, the space was originally bought to build the Municipal Auditorium which would later expand to make a complete high cultural center for the city. Again, like in New York, these systems, including I-10 across Claiborne Avenue, would only affect minority communities, most of whom have only now begun to recover from the devastating effect of this once hailed march of progress.
These parallels should be no surprise: Robert Moses visited New Orleans after World War II to and planned a new highway system. Just as he had been stopped in New York for attempting to build a highway through Greenwich Village, Moses left New Orleans defeated after attempting to build an elevated highway on the banks of the French Quarter, to be known as the Riverfront Expressway. Even though these two projects stripped him of his power, Moses had already left broken communities and economic devastation in his wake. The Riverfront Expressway was the only part of Moses’ plan for New Orleans that was not implemented. At the time of its cancellation, the massive oak trees and prosperous African American businesses that once lined Claiborne Avenue were gone and replaced with a concrete roof on top of forty-foot concrete pillars, darkening the once lively street in the Treme. Those businesses never returned. The impact on these communities was severe. The neighborhoods in New York, New Orleans, and other cities Moses built highways in, slowly devolved into poverty, unemployment, drug use, and gang activity. Treme, the Bronx, and South Side Chicago are only a few examples of the once flourishing neighborhoods that became infamously titled “murder capitals.”
By the 1960’s, the City of New Orleans had the funds to buy the land and properties, using eminent domain to set in motion plans that had been conceived decades before. Even then, the city government was so inept that the majority of the land was vacant until the 1970’s, acting as an empty fenced-in reminder of what the City took from the residents of Treme. After two decades of empty space and angry citizens, Mayor Moon Landrieu, knowing that the City’s sins couldn’t be washed away, set to make the land a park in honor of the recently deceased Louis Armstrong. The park finally filled the cultural need for jazz to be fully integrated into the City’s culture. Eventually, the politics and policies were forgotten and the ghosts of the houses that once filled the area aren’t even mentioned during tours. Only those who continued to live in the Treme remember what was taken from their community.
In the shadow of the once glorious Municipal Auditorium is a statue of the Chief of Chiefs, Allison “Tootie” Montana. His is the first personal statue encountered along St. Ann. It’s difficult to understand the magnitude of the man by the memorial alone. His statue barely stands six feet off the ground, but Montana was a giant among the black masking Indians, whose impact can be felt across New Orleans. Not even the original Big Chief, Becate “BK” Batiste, is revered in the way that Big Chief Tootie continues to be revered among the Mardi Gras Indians.
The shell of the Municipal Auditorium is your companion through most of the journey up St. Ann Street. This building was once astonishing. Once the preferred hosting site for the Krewes of Mardi Gras, the venue was originally built to be the events center of New Orleans. It has the outward grandeur of the great New York City buildings and the ingenious use of indoor space which made it possible for the Auditorium to host multiple events at once. The Auditorium hosted festivals, balls, concerts, area tours, wrestling and even basketball games. Still, there is a dark history behind the structure as it was the first part of Armstrong park to displace families. Moreover, until the end of segregation those families likely couldn’t even visit the unique and astounding building that replaced them. Now, if you walk the length of the massive building, you can only see the karmic deterioration. Since Hurricane Katrina, the massive structure has sat unused in disrepair. Squatters have become the buildings' lone residents. Windows continue to be broken. If you are looking at the right window, you can see plant life that is now growing in place of the lavish balls of the Krewe of Rex. As the final grievance with FEMA has only recently been filed by the city and is in the process of being reviewed, the fate of the Municipal Auditorium is in flux, as it has been for the past 15 years. Today, the bars have stayed on the doors as the once glorious structure rots from the inside out.
While there are multitudes of statues in the park, none appear on St. Ann street until you reach the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Built in 1973 as the second artistic building in the area, the theater became the center for classical music and opera in New Orleans. After the park was submerged in more than ten feet of water during Katrina, this theater was restored and became the exclusive host of touring Broadway productions. Sitting at its feet is a semi-abstract statue of Mahalia Jackson, considered one of the greatest gospel singers in history. Beloved as one of the most recognizable singers and civil rights activists of her time, her funeral in New Orleans was attended by as many as 50,000 mourners.
Continuing on the journey up St. Ann, there is nothing left of interest. A shed used for the Auditorium stands largely unused. Parking lots take up both sides of the walkway. There is no official pedestrian exit so you will have to use the driveway to leave. There is only one break in the fence that was erected when the park was built. Cruelly, the City was determined to separate the Treme residents from the park, even though it was their homes that were torn down and their culture that is celebrated within the iron fence that stands ten feet above the ground. At least once every six months, an editorial is issued pleading with the City to tear the fence down and open the park to all residents. At least once every six months, the pleas are met with indifference or silence.
Upon re-entering Treme, you can turn right and see what Armstrong Park used to be. Three or four blocks of classic shotgun and double shotgun homes fill the area. Like the theaters and park, this neighborhood was hit hard by Katrina. There are still empty lots waiting to be built upon.
Upon turning right onto Governor Nicholls street, one of the many ironies of New Orleans will likely be open. The street is named for a former Confederate General and Louisiana Governor whose record on civil rights is limited to causing an international incident due to his non-response to the lynching of 11 Italian immigrant in New Orleans. But, on this street is the New Orleans African American Museum housed in a small fenced in colonial house since 1996. Much like the ownership of Zulu, whose clubhouse is in Treme, the chosen spot for the African American Museum is on a street named after a segregationist.
The tree lined blocks of Gov. Nicholls street are flanked by houses common to the City. The left side is all different types of New Orleans architecture. To the right are large, solidly built buildings so large that the color change in each structure serves as a visual distance marker. Half a block is solid white, the other is teal, the next block is sky blue and so on and so forth. But, there is a gap. After three and a half blocks of buildings built to the edge of the street, next to a two-story pale teal building is an indent of maybe fifteen feet. A small driveway opens the premises of the side of St. Augustine Church, the oldest African American church in the United States. In the center of this small clearing, right up against the side of the church, is the striking sight of three different sized crosses. Two are upright and no more than twenty four inches off the ground. But next to them is a significantly larger cross, ten feet long laying upright on its side as if still being dragged to Golgotha, the site of the Crucifixion. It is drenched in shackles that swing freely with the restraints still closed. The cross itself is constructed with chain links. On the building there is a plaque. It is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated to the hundreds who were buried in chains. In this neighborhood, even this plaque has a deep connection to music. It was donated by the Estate of beloved guitarist Danny Barker.
If you take a right at the corner, the treelining ends and you are taken into the sunlight. There is a large open field next to the church that has been used as a gathering place for decades. Across the street there are lines of double shotgun homes painted in sea green or white, the normal colors of the neighborhood with stairs growing out of the sidewalk to meet the front doors. Nothing marks the street as unique.
But, halfway between Gov. Nicholls and Usiline street is a special home. From afar, the house stands out from the others as it houses the only driveway on the block. The green stairs openly clashed with the pink mailbox and off white house. It is the first house that isn’t a shotgun style home. It has a large functional porch, compared to the houses with simple steps leading from the sidewalk to the front door. As you get closer, there are additions beyond the structure of the home. On the house at the front of the porch, a clock has been placed. On the outside of the building at the back of the porch, there are billboards with descriptive writing of what lies inside the walls. The most significant addition lays over the sidewalk. Built on the side at the top of the wall is what once was a grand sign. Ravaged by the weather, the metal sign sits chips and rusted. It is covering up the words of a previous Art Deco style sign that once said “Blandin Funeral Home,” a historic Creole and black owned funeral parlor dating back to 1909. Now the sign reads “Backstreet Cultural Museum.”
It doesn’t have the trappings of other museums in New Orleans. Instead of a ticket window and a uniform-wearing employee, a simple invitation to enter is displayed in the home dedicated to the spiritual history of New Orleans. The building wasn’t designed by a modernist architect to express the interior knowledge. In accord with the humble nature of the house, Sylvester Francis, the operator of the museum, will sometimes greet you after you enter the door, as he will also come from behind the house after he hears the door open. In order to get to his seat behind the register, Sylvester will have to squeeze and push past any guests who stop at the doorway. He may or may not lead you on purpose, but every visitor follows him to the room on the right. A long thin hallway plastered with pictures separates two rooms. A quick glance will show the Second line section on the left, and the most precious section on the right. Sylvester lumbers behind the glass display case turned into a front desk and collects the ten dollar admission. Most of the time, Mr. Francis will stay in his chair and gesture to the world of which he is the steward.
There is nothing exceptional about the room’s dimensions or build. The walls are made of the same material as the houses around it. The bones are still wood. The outer layer is still plastered. The length and width are similar to many homes in New Orleans. Nothing of historical note occured in this room. Groups of influential men didn’t meet in the sitting area. No song was composed on a piano against a wall. But the current inventory of this room is one of the most significant cultural and historical collections in the city.
Directly across from the doorway is a suit made for a child. It is magnificently created with brightly colored and multi-layered yellow feathers bursting forth as if exploded by a bomb. A visual shockwave occurs so greatly that the rest of the suit can be overlooked on the first look. But the peacock-like feather arrangement is centered on some of the most intricate sewing found in the United States. Beads and crystals are delicately patterned into a fine mosaic around the neck. From shoulder to shoulder, this half circle represents thousands of hours of work by a single person. If you ask Sylvester, he will likely tell you that this was done by the youngest masking member of the gang. To your left is the work of masters.
Every step is astonishing. The wall is lined with full adult sized suits, even fitted with handmade boots. Each suit includes a plaque at shin level signifying the same information. “Victor Harris; Big Chief; Spirit of Fi Yi Yi; Mandingo Warriors; 2004.” Only the year changes from suit to suit. As you progress through the room, it can be said that there is a progression as each suit is its own masterpiece. Sylvester will come over and explain that one suit is made in the image of an animal. This suit has a spider crown with the chest piece representing a web and there are spiders beaded into the knees and the lower chest piece. That suit was made to mirror the image of an elephant. The one in the corner is inspired by the snake. Without prompt, Sylvester will point to the suit that was sent to the Smithsonian or the suit that was given to the New Orleans Historical Society or the suit that was donated to the Louisiana Museum.
If one asks the right questions, Sylvester or one of the people who volunteer at the museum will explain why there is a drastic difference from the left side of the room to the right. There is a breathtaking light purple suit that is more like a model castle than something meant to be worn by a single person. Spires are mounted on plaster and covered in beads and crystals. There is even a drawbridge. Even the light layer of dust can’t cover the beauty and glamour of the suits. Sylvester will show every facet of the suit and highlight the differences between this suit and one of Victor Harris’. They are the differences between the Uptown and Downtown styles.
Sylvester and his family will talk about any element of the suits. Actually, they will only talk about their suits and gang. As I was told during my visit, they only know what goes on within their gang and won’t talk about the way other Indians mask. But, they will go to one of Victor Harris’ suits and talk about each piece, its construction, the materials, the symbolism, and even the concept. Beyond that, many times unprompted, a visitor will be told that not only do the Mandingo Warriors mask through the city, the gang is an important part of the neighborhood that serves them. Victor Harris speaks proudly of the yearly tradition of making backpacks filled with school supplies for children whose family are unable to afford them. The gang will get very intense about their sewing programs. These programs are mainly aimed toward the young people who could easily fall into real gang culture without the considerable structure of the Indians.
The wall is plastered with informational posters filled with definitions and historical context. One such poster describes the importance of St. Joseph’s Day. Another is filled with photos of the Wild Man and information on how to identify him. Like a family bible, a photo album sits right next to the doorway, filled with decades worth of photos of Indians in their suits in full page frames. Each page turn reveals an exquisite example of Mardi Gras Indian craftsmanship.
Across the hall, there is another room dedicated to the Social Aid Clubs and Benevolent societies. Their suits and traditions are also placed around the walls. One particular piece is hard to place. It is the size of a golf club carrier, if not bigger. Adorned with beads and glitters and purple, green, and gold threads, it stands out from the room. If you ask Sylvester, he will matter-of-factly say it is an umbrella. The parallels between the two rooms is striking. Both are filled with striking handmade suits. Both use plumbs and beads. Both are expressions of African Heritage for public parades.
Most say that these cultures developed independently. Historians usually only tell the story of the Indians or the social aid clubs. A cursory look into the history of the Indians and the Social Aid Clubs would seem to confirm this but the similarities between these two cultures are too great to be completely independent. A deeper look into the Mardi Gras Indians could lead us closer to the truth.
Currently, 1313 St. Anthony street is a 100 year old house in the heart of the seventh ward in New Orleans. Built in 1920, the green double shotgun style home is situated in the largest Creole Neighborhood in the city. Bordering the Treme and only a half mile walk from the Backstreet Cultural Museum, it was built after the owner of the original house had passed. This owner was a simple plasterer on the surface. Many assumed that the steps to his home would have no lasting legacy in 1920. There is so little information on him that a proper age of death can only be found with extreme difficulty as Becate Batiste doesn’t have a registered death certificate in the state of Louisiana. But on his original steps in 1879, Becate Batiste, a half Creole, half Choctaw builder, walked out in public dressed in a suit handmade from turkey feathers and fish scales forever creating a spectacle. He was appointed the leader, the Big Chief, of a tribe filled with the descendants of Creoles and Native Americans who had decided to start to project their pride and heritage to the world. As he walked into the street from his porch, Becate, also known as B.K., led his newly appointed members of Creole Wild West into the new world. Not only would this tribe proudly walk through the neighborhood in full Native American garb, the entire tribe would use whatever percussion instruments they could find and engage in a call and response with Becate steeped in African influence. The huge gathering, sixty or more, could be heard for several blocks in the Creole neighborhood, causing residents to poke their head out the window and see the Spy Boy out in front leading along the predetermined route, seeing a newly born tradition which continues largely unchanged to the present day.
Not much is documented about Becate. By all accounts, B.K. was a plasterer in New Orleans and a man of high quality. All sources show that Batiste was indeed a Creole descendant of the Choctaw and was extremely proud of his Native American heritage, never forgetting how the Choctaw had brought his ancestors into the tribe after they ran away from the plantations. However, this is where the agreement seems to end. Even among Indians, details of his life are subjects of dispute. Some have B.K. founding Creole Wild West in the 1850’s, others the 1860’s, and Tootie Montana, Batiste’s grand-nephew, claiming 1879. Likewise, the date of his death is even in some dispute. Batiste likely died in 1919 but various dates are claimed anywhere from 1913 to 1923, which could put his age of death anywhere from 70 to 90 years old. But, this is likely due to B.K.’s lasting impact on the tribes, many of which trace their foundation to him even though there is no direct evidence to support this link.
Sources also place the founding and influences of Creole Wild West in dispute, even though the information is scattered. Most mainstream articles use the same oft-recycled anecdote which is problematic at best. The story goes that the costuming of the Mardi Gras Indians, called masking, was heavily influenced by the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show which was in New Orleans from 1884-1885. The men of Native American and African American heritage, looking for a method of expression during Jim Crow, were impacted by the attitude of the Native Americans in the show. During Mardi Gras in 1885, the Creole Wild West tribe first masked and started the phenomenon that continues to this day. They became so popular that when the Indians masked, crowds of people would turn away from the parade and follow the big chief. While this seems to tell the complete story, the facts show a completely different purpose and deep history behind the masking Indians.
1885 may have been the first appearance of the tribe (also known as gangs) at Mardi Gras, but Creole Wild West was documented as early as 1883 by those in the 7th ward. One observer claimed that over 60 men dressed in Indian garb paraded through the streets. Becate, possibly knowing that the city of New Orleans would never issue a Black-Indian gang a permit to march, led his gang through the backstreets of the city, populated mainly by blacks and Creoles. It is likely that this was not the first citing of the Indian gang; many of the residents either couldn’t write due to lack of education among recently freed blacks, or didn’t speak and write in English as the Creole language was widely used in this neighborhood until 1900. It would be a mistake to assume that 1885 is the correct date and without that assumption, the Buffalo Bill story no longer holds water.
Many Masking Indians continue to loath the Buffalo Bill story and it is easy to see why. For a group of intensely proud people, it is an insult to associate their heritage and traditions with Buffalo Bill. While remembered for its depictions of a fantastical Old West, many forget that the Wild West Show was an advertisement to the superiority of the white race over that of the Plains Indians. Between the displays of marksmanship and horse riding, Bill Cody would present alternative histories of famous battles between the US Army and the Plains Indians. While never overturning the outcome, the famed Wild Bill would routinely exaggerate and exploit the negative stereotypes of the Native Americans while showing the white men as continuously noble, only losing due to the inability to act uncivilized. For example, the depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn was largely accurate but skewed. Famously known as Custer’s Last Stand, Cody still showed the demise of Custer at the hands of the Sioux, but instead of showing how Custer’s errors and arrogance led his army to destruction, he showed a heroic last stand against the wild and savage Sioux while Cody’s hero refused to become uncivilized in kind. Cody also painted himself as the great avenger, finding the Sioux who killed Custer and removing his scalp. The show also included many of the genre defining elements of Westerns. Settlers were attacked by Indians, battles were fought by Cowboys. Even though the Native Americans in the production were treated well for the time, the themes of the set pieces were simple. Whites were the ultimate noble heroes of the West in an uncivilized land of savagery.
For the extremely proud members of the Mardi Gras Indians, it is an insult for the gangs’ tribute to their African and Native American ancestry to be associated with the Wild West shows, which is why many see the story as complete fiction.
While the exact date of the first masking is difficult to place, it is understood that there had been masking for at least 5-10 years before Creole Wild West was formed in 1879. However, the routines and traditions may not have been followed and these previous years might have been less regimented and more periodic then the present day Indians.
What is known is that Creole Wild West was an absolute spectacle. One of the reasons it was thought by outsiders to be founded in 1885 was that during Mardi Gras that year, the crowds, who had admired the parade of the mighty Krewe of Rex for many years, turned their backs on the floats when they first heard the Spy Boy announce the incoming Big Chief. Slowly, the whole tribe, possibly as many as 90 men in handmade suits, walked into view and into the cultural history of New Orleans. Even with suits made from discarded fish scales and turkey feathers, the gang was still glorious as they marched down the street. While they Indians weren’t the artisans they became shortly after, their imprint on the parade watchers was deep and immovable. Not only did this mass of men march into Mardi Gras unannounced, they were dancing to a call and response that was unique to the city of New Orleans.
The gangs grew slowly during the first fifty years of their history. Describing the gangs at the turn of the century, Jelly Roll Morton could remember that five or maybe six tribes were around the city. While it is difficult to trace the tribes in the early 20th century, it can be said that the growth of the Mardi Gras Indians was minimal at best when Becate Batiste died in 1919. The gangs were feared by many in the city. During the two masking nights of the year, Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day night, there was violence whenever the gangs met. Mardi Gras was especially violent, as the police were preoccupied with the festivities around the rest of the city. Scores were settled, territories were divided, and the Indian gangs acted like regular gangs. Many would come home with their suits covered in blood, some of it their own, some of it belonging to another Indian. The sounds of the Indians coming down the street place struck fear in many neighborhoods. Every Super Sunday, the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, parks around the city, centering on Hunter’s Field in the 7th ward, had become battlegrounds complete with hatchets, machetes, and gun fire. While the torch bearers of the tradition started by B.K. insist that the gangs were only fighting among themselves, the general public only remembered the violence.
The internal culture of the Indians is fascinating. Until very recently, the Mardi Gras Indians were extremely secretive of their traditions and practices, tightly guarding them against the outside world. They even have their own language, a mixture of French, Creole and Choctaw. Most words are kept away from the public, but the words that are known portray a mindset of warriors filled with pride. “Hum bow” is widely known to mean “kneel down,” but the term is only followed when directed by a Chief. Mostly, when an Indian said “hum bow” (or humba, depending on the source) it was a call to fight as no Indian would ever think to kneel or bow down to others. Many Chiefs begin practice by saying “won’t bow down, don’t know how.” “Tu way pocky way” is known to mean “get the hell out of the way.” In fact, many of the most well known Mardi Gras Indian phrases are aggressive and prideful. “Jackomo fi na ney,” a phrase made famous by the song “Iko Iko,” translates roughly to “kiss my ass.”
These were men who didn’t believe in leaving a fight unfought or allowing themselves to be pushed around by any authority. These same men yelled these phrases through the streets in the 1880’s in massive groups, dressed as Native Americans. They had no fear of the police, nor the White League which had become the predominant political force in Louisiana. Other phrases have been held secret. No one outside of the tribes truly understands the meaning of “moddey cootee fiyo,” which the phrase that all Chiefs begin all Indian rituals with. It is doubtful that anyone other than the Mardi Gras Indians will know what it means.
Masking had two purposes at the beginning. One was spiritual; a tribute to the ancestors and a vessel to express African culture. The other was pragmatic. If a person is wearing an elaborate Native American inspired suit from head to toe, they are more difficult for the white police and members of the white league to identify.
Their secrecy was needed in the early years of masking. Any association with African Americans, much less being an African American, was a dangerous proposition, especially if you were even thinking about diving into politics in any form. Most protests or demonstrations turned bloody as the White League or Ku Klux Klan were always looking for the right opportunity to terrorize the community. Many of the massacres that occurred during Reconstruction and Jim Crow were originally African American protests until whites accelerated the conflicts with violent intent. The White League and KKK were especially savage when targeting voting booths during election year. Knowing that the African American vote would install Radical Republicans or even African Americans as political leaders, threatening the former Confederate soldiers hold on power. This could be why the Mardi Gras Indians kept their routes among themselves. Most kept their suit making skills secret as well. While the tribes are significantly more open today, most gangs still keep their stitching patterns and suit building concepts within the tribe, only orally passing the skills from one Indian to another.
Through most of their history, Mardi Gras Indians shunned any person or organization that wanted to study their culture out of fear of exploitation. Victor Harris, founder of the Mandingo Warriors of Fi-Yi-Yi (pronounced Fai-Ya-Ya), only founded his own tribe after he was expelled from the Yellow Pocahontas after appearing on a recording as a Spy Boy from the tribe. There are very few examples of an Indian practice on video or a full sheet of Indian lyrics. Even those based on Indian songs, such as “Hey Pocky Way,” “Tootie Ma,” or “Iko Iko” were only based on what was heard on the street and the songwriters were never privy to the true lyrics or their meaning. While tribes such as the Wild Magnolia and the Golden Eagles achieved some mainstream success by recording albums and touring, they did so with considerable push back from other tribes.
Donald Harrison Jr., the famed jazz saxophonist whose father was the Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame and is currently a Big Chief himself, said that “the people that really know what we are doing don't really answer inside questions because the old timers set it up that way. They saw that outsiders would think they were more important than the people actually carrying the culture.”
Allison “Tootie” Montana was intent on changing the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians. He was already Masking Indian royalty. His father, Alfred Montana, was Big Chief of the 8th Ward Hunters, one of the earliest gangs. His grandfather had married into the Batiste Family and masked with his brother-in-law, Becate Batiste. Montana was even born and raised in 1313 St. Anthony Street on the plot that was once home to the steps Big Chief B.K. had walked down during the first Masking of Creole Wild West. Tootie was as close to the beginning of the tradition as any living Indian at the time. After his time in the Army, Tootie joined his father before he branched off to found his first tribe, the Monogram Hunters. In 1956, Montana founded his signature gang, The Yellow Pocahontas. He was chief of both tribes before leaving the Monogram Hunters to pour his efforts to the Yellow Pocahontas. (The Monogram Hunters eventually faded away but was resurrected by Big Chief Tyrone “Pie” Stevenson, who masked under Tootie for 25 years before asking his permission to re-found the Hunters.)
For almost fifty years, Big Chief Tootie led his Yellow Pocahontas tribe. In the early years of his chiefdom, Montana experienced the same Indian life as others. His Mardi Gras and Super Sunday were also filled with violence. He also came home beaten and bloodied. However, Tootie grew tired and angry of the annual bloodshed. He found the infighting and gang activity to be unproductive and disrespectful to their common Native American and African ancestry. Things needed to change and Tootie was to be the one to change them.
Slowly, Monata began to weed out the violence from Indian culture. He began with the new members of his tribe. While older members were infamous in the community, many being pimps, gangsters and prostitutes, Tootie began to reach back into their history. He recruited people such as himself and his father (who was a designer and painter). The Yellow Pocahontas would also go to places that Indian normally didn’t go to, such as Canal Street, picking up second liners who normally didn’t march with the tribes. Montana remembers even picking up a nun or two. If a rival tribe came to fight on Canal Street, the Yellow Pocahontas would march them uptown, away from the crowds. They would find the source of the trouble and run them out of the neighborhood by sheer numbers. Other Chiefs such as Donald Harrison Sr. and Robert Lee (Big Chief Robbe) soon followed suit and Mardi Gras changed from a day of vengeance to a day of exhibition among the tribes. Soon, Tootie and the other Big Chiefs created the Mardi Gras Indian council. The council was a meeting ground for every tribe to ensure that the Indians acted as one culture. Even though Big Chief Robbe was voted as a ceremonial Chief of Chiefs due to his history and influence despite deteriorating health (he had already gone blind by this time), Montana quickly became the council's leader. New protocols were created. If an Indian wanted to found a new tribe, they needed the approval of the council and their own chief, meaning they needed the approval of Tootie Montana. Montana had almost absolute power on how the Indians conducted themselves but he was far from a tyrant. The old rivalries were thrown out as the chiefs realized the special culture they all shared and the lifestyle that they were preserving. Most became lifelong friends.
Tootie Montana also steered the tribes from physical fighting to artistic fighting. Instead of seeking vengeance for slights, the chief would trust his tribe to put their minds to work on designing the prettiest suit they could as a way of showing up their rivals. It was easier for Tootie than others because his suits were game changing in and of themselves.
Before Montana, Indian tribes all worked in the same style known as the uptown style. Based in the original Indian style, the tribes had evolved away from fish scales and turkey feathers. Becate Batiste was said to have been closer to the suits of the Native Americans as a tribute to his ancestors that took in runaway slaves and this was the basis of the evolution of the suits. Each suit had a front piece, head piece (known as a crown) and a back piece. While not as elaborate as today, the Indians began to be more artistically expressive after Batiste’s death. Usually there was a design in the front piece depicting some type of aggressive if not violent scene from Native American lore. But, this was as far as the artistry went. Why would an Indian spend time and money on artistic expression when the suit would be either bloodied by a rival or burned at the end of the season due to decaying material?
But Tootie Montana poured himself into his suits. His crowns became more elaborate. His front pieces became more detailed. His back pieces were larger and more expressive than any before him. Montana also used his tradecraft as a lather to add to his suits. He started to design and construct his suits in three dimensions and the suits seem to explode from within, using an impressive array of colors and shapes to continue to catch the eye of those he passed. His tribe soon followed his example and the Yellow Pocahontas became the most impressive tribe in New Orleans. Even more impressive was that Tootie’s tribe followed the tradition of discarding the suits after St. Joseph’s day every year and built new suits from scratch, which were unveiled at the following Mardi Gras. The designs grew more intricate, more detailed and more artistic with each year. Instead of creating simple pictures in the Uptown style, Montana created suits in three dimensional, using molding and plaster and techniques he learned from his profession, essentially creating the Downtown style.
Suit making is central to the soul of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. It requires character building attributes such as dedication, patients, perseverance, and, above all, pride. Every Indian sews for hours on end, especially as Mardi Gras creeps closer. Sometimes a Chief will sew for over four hours in order to meet this deadline. Like a fable, the process is passed down from generation to generation orally. Since not every member gets to mask, the suit is earned over years. Sewing is a spiritual lifeforce to the Indians. For many, it gave their lives direction, fulfillment and purpose.
Every member of every tribe describes masking as a lifelong devotion. What began as fish scales and turkey feathers became an ornate arrangement of beads, ostrich feathers, and, sometimes, gems and Swarovski crystals. The cost can quickly escalate into the tens of thousands. As the materials become more scarce, the price of the suits increases. For a Big Chief, whose suit is the most ornate, the cost can be up to $50,000 making some Chiefs look to Facebook or GoFundMe in order to complete the suits. Even walking the route is a feat of persistence and strength as the suits can weigh up to 200 pounds when complete, making it all the more amazing that many mask into their seventies. Tootie Monata masked until he was 78 years old himself. More important than the money is the toil. Each Indian pours their sweat and sews their blood into every suit, literally and figuratively. With this obsessive passion, it bewilders some that Indians generally never wear a suit again. The older suits needed to be burned afterward due to the decay of the materials, but the tradition continues, though most don’t throw away whole suits any longer in an attempt to reuse materials. The suits stay with the Indian for the rest of their lives, in the attic or storage unit. No Indian would dare wear the same suit two years in a row. For the prettiest, their suits will sometimes be sent to a museum in town or, for the most fortunate, a suit will be sent to the Smithsonian. In this way, the tribes are given an opportunity to rededicate themselves every year to the craft, reigniting the fire inside the individual to strive for something beyond themselves.
The style and sewing certainly influenced the Social Aid Clubs, who began to parade in hand-sewn suits with bright yellows, greens, purples, and golds. Their suits were complete with a hat, tie, and sash. Umbrellas, canes, carts, and many other items were made with the same flair and bravado. These clubs embraced the brashness of the original Indians, making their presence known by their appearance and music, not simply their signs and flags. Set side by side, the jackets and hats of the Social Aid Clubs and the suits of the Indians differ only in artistic ambition.
The membership of the Mardi Gras Indians exploded and the Yellow Pocahontas gave birth to dozens of new tribes in New Orleans. The Monogram Hunters, Mandingo Warriors of Fi-Yi-Yi, Washitaw Nation, the Golden Feathers, and the 7th Ward Hunters are just some of the tribes that were founded by former members of Tootie's gang.
Over the course of his life, Allison Montana would become a revered artist. The National Endowment of the Arts granted him a Fellowship as a Master Traditional Artist from the Folk Art Program in 1987. All the tribes in New Orleans considered him the prettiest chief in the city. Even after he was too old to wear his suits, the Yellow Pocahontas still named him as Big Chief after he retired from masking in 1998, ending a fifty year period of unmatched artistry among the gangs.
The suits quickly distanced themselves from the traditional Native American suit that Becate wore. The Indians now desired a much deeper well of artistic inspiration. While some African elements existed in the inner workings of the tribes, these elements were now becoming essential influences on the suit making. The color grew vibrant with deep purples, fluorescent greens, bright yellows and other peacock-like colors. They compare favorably to the colors used in West African dress and garments. Also, in homage to their warrior ancestors, the front pieces began to depict the struggles of African Americans and fantasies of vengeance. Vivid and violent portrayals of lynchings, Native American battles, and African warriors were displayed and paraded through the streets of New Orleans during segregation. Even though the very act of parading through the backstreet of the City was a protest in and of itself, the portraits of the Mardi Gras Indian only furthered the notion that these men were letting the world know about the injustice hurled upon them. In the years since Hurricane Katrina, many Chiefs had several suits dedicated to the satirizing of the federal response. Much like the Social Aid Clubs, the tribute to their ancestors and the violent portrait have come under attack recently, some even asking if the Mardi Gras Indians themselves are practicing a form of cultural appropriation. Their response has been similar to Zulu. They won’t back down, don’t know how..
Not only was Montana a generational talent as an artist and a visionary leader for the entire Marid Gras Indian culture, he was a strong and respected warrior for his community. Police harassment was a major issue confronting the tribes on Super Sunday. Much like their ancestors, the Indians don’t apply for permits for their march across town. Every year, Big Chief Montana stood in front of the city council in an effort to peacefully bring an end to the violence inflicted on the Indians by the police. He would rage at the inaction, rage at injustice, and rage at the lack of pride in city culture that the council often exuded. Montana considered this his great battlefront. The Indians weren’t the only ones who Montana fought for. He set the example for many chiefs by acting on behalf of his neighborhood. If housing projects were in danger of massive change from the City, Big Chief Tootie was there. When the 7th ward descended into violence and drug use, Montana was teaching its children how to sew.
This is not uncommon among the Indians. Many were community leaders and union members, even during the days of violence. B.K. was a well known labor leader, as was Tootie Montana. Donald Harrison Sr. was the president of the hotel labor union. More importantly, it was the leaders who often brought in the youth and taught them everything about the Indian life from sewing to the songs. The Big Chiefs, such as Daryl Montana and Victor Harris, became central figures in the neighborhood, combating drug use and promoting education as best they can.
On June 27th, 2005, the elderly Allison Montana walked into the city council chamber once again. The police had been harassing his beloved Indians on St. Joseph’s night once again. Though he was 82, the chief of chiefs came ready for a fight.
St. Joseph’s night was a sacred night. The Indians consider it the last night of their season and the only night when they must fully mask. Mardi Gras can have a full suit or a suit in progress, but St. Joseph’s night will always have the completed suit. During slavery, the ancestors of the Mardi Gras Indians plotted their escape from servitude. For Italians in New Orleans, of which there were many, children would dress up in costumes and masks and go house to house knocking on doors to symbolically ask for refuge. Being a Sunday, many slaves would take the opportunity to mask with the children and leave New Orleans for the country where they would meet the Choctaw, Natchez, or Chitimacha who would assist in their escape. For the Indians, St. Joseph’s night was the night to honor the bravery of their ancestors and to reenact their flee to freedom. And in 2005, the New Orleans Police Department attempted to derail this ritual. Various officers would force Big Chiefs to remove their suits, threaten arrest to the tribes and send everyone home for the night. Several straight up attacked the Indians. Montana, as he had done again and again and again, put his foot down in the chambers of the city council.
The fourth speaker of the night, Montana followed the infamous former Mayor, Ray Nagin. Nagin took his time illustrating the Indians of his childhood and made it clear that he loved the tradition. During his speech, the mayor reiterated that this harassment would not happen on his watch, but the room, filled with Chiefs and members of various tribes, shouted that it had been happening for years, precisely on his watch.
All the Indians were asked to rise from their seats as the Chief of Chiefs made his way to the podium. Tootie took his fifty plus years of experience and decried the mayor with everyone of them. He told stories of the police making barricades along his route. He proclaimed that they would tighten their grips on their clubs when they would see a Spy Boy, sometimes swinging them just out of reach of an Indian, even a child of 10, simply to get a reaction and a reason to arrest anyone in the tribe.
“This has got to stop,” Montana pleaded to the council. He had put his plea forward yet again.
Seconds later, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas was on the floor.
He had suffered a massive heart attack. Once it was evident that the Big Chief was in serious danger, the Mardi Gras Indians in attendance began to sing. The song was the same song that began and ended every march and every practice. “Indian Red” reverberated around City Hall as Montana was put on a stretcher and taken to a hospital in serious condition. He was pronounced dead at 1:24am the next morning.
Hundreds showed up to his funeral. He was second lined by a 20 piece brass band. Many Indians masked for the occasion, even though the procession was halted several times because of the excessive heat in the 150 pound suits. The following year, many Big Chiefs changed their suits to the uptown style in tribute. Victor Harris of Fi-Yi-Yi copied one of Tootie’s last suits in tribute. The most touching was Daryl Montana, Tootie’s son and successor as Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, whose suit included a miniature portrait of his father in the front piece. Daryl even connected the figures' arms to his own so that it would look like his father was guiding his actions.
Despite this final plea from one of New Orleans most revered citizens, the NOPD continued to harass the Indians. In 2012, Daryl Montana followed his father’s example and pleaded with the city council. A litany of Big Chiefs were with him asking only for their traditions to be respected by the city government. Their routes were still being barricaded and the police were still enforcing curfews. Many told the council that they felt like Tootie Montana’s death was hollow and the Indians needed closure. Finally, the police commissioner agreed. The police would no longer enforce curfews or block Indian routes on Super Sunday. Almost ten years since Big Chief Tootie died on the battleground, a truce had finally been achieved. The Indians could now be free to follow their traditions without reproach. There is regular communication between the two parties every Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day. The police will even escort the Indians along the routes, acting as the Spy Boy and Wild Man. Similar to his father’s decision in creating Armstrong Park out of a vacant lot, Mayor Mitch Landrieu integrated the Indians into the culture of the city government by requiring all new police recruits to be trained in the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians. Tootie’s plea was finally answered.
Much has been noted about the songs of the Mardi Gras Indians. While many will describe the more famous examples (“Hey Pocky Way”, “Iko Iko”, “Tootie Ma”) there is a more insidious nature to the musical influence of the Indians. The call and response nature of the songs made many historians believe that early jazz was far more national than it actually was. Call and response has been in African culture for generations and blues music certainly retains that specific element. But, what the Mardi Gras Indians do is more similar to the African culture than blues music ever was. The first difference, and most striking, is the total lack of harmony in traditional Indian songs. The tribes carry drums and percussion of all types but there is not a single melodic instrument. Also, blues music doesn’t truly have a master drummer, whereas the Big Chief fills that role. He begins every song, sets every tempo, and moves to a new song when ready. He is also the only one who is allowed to improvise. For example, the Indian song “Pocky Way'' will begin with repetition, then evolve into a full blown call and response:
Big Chief: Hey pocky way
Tribe: Hey Pocky way