With the exception of sporadic documentaries, books and a small but dedicated scholarly following, Mardi Gras Indians have remained comparatively unknown to much of the world outside New Orleans. While Katrina served, amid their dislocation, to briefly bring them to national attention, this past year saw their story take a different turn: when in the pilot episode of Treme Clarke Peters appeared on screen as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux of the Guardians of the Flame, marching down a storm-ravaged street in full Indian regalia, singing and chanting and piercing the night with his cries. Here, before our eyes, was a tradition that would not and could not be washed away in the flood. The surreality of that scene, and the grip of the dramas that followed, introduced much of America to sights and sounds that had rarely traveled past the Orleans Parish line: African-American men and women laboring all year long to craft enormous, intricate suits they only wear once, masking in solidarity with Native Americans with whom, under white oppression, they had formed cultural and political affinities, parading through the city just three days out of the year.
A recent Sunday was one of those days. Indians march on Mardi Gras Day, St Joseph’s Day (March 19), and Super Sunday, the Sunday closest to St Joseph’s Day. Apart from these three days, the rest of the year is spent designing and sewing their suits, practicing songs and dance routines, and negotiating the membership of the tribe. Tribe structure is intensely hierarchical: each tribe has a Big Chief and Big Queen, a Spy Boy and a Flag Boy, and a Wild Man, each with different roles. Different tribes also have lesser Chiefs and Queens, but nearly all tribes include positions for their youngest members: Lil’ Chiefs and Queens. That youth as young as toddlers play a role adds to the resiliency not just of any given tribe, but of the wider tradition itself: so long as a new generation arises to take the place of the old, Indians understand, they will be able to withstand any natural or man-made disaster.
This year, St Joseph’s and Super Sunday fell back-to-back; many Indians were still exhausted from parading, and partying, the night before, they told me, but everyone was glad to be out. One member of the Golden Blades, who was dishing out piping hot chicken and ice-cold drinks from her trailer, told me that she preferred St Joseph’s Night for the simple reason that “you actually get to see everyone.” With most of the Indians incorporating Uptown, “St Joseph’s isn’t like Mardi Gras,” she said, “when you just march with your suit, showing it off. I like to see people, you know, talk to them.”
As do their admirers, who turn out by the thousands to watch them perform, both Uptown, in AL Davis Park, and downtown, in the Treme and the Seventh Ward. Uptown, the day begins with Indians arriving in the park, bringing their suits, spears, and banners in trucks and rental trailers. In previous years, Indians would march miles from their homes to meet other tribes (as described in the song ‘Meet the Boys on the Battlefront’), but as suits have grown heavier, more elaborate, and costlier, this practice has become less common. The parts of the suits laid out on the ground in preparation, a tribe slowly comes together over the course of the morning, ending in a roll call as they dress and ready to march. Dressing itself is an art form: suits are composed of many pieces, whose assembly requires, patience, care, and a skilled hand and eye.
And strength: as I stand admiring the suits of the Wild Magnolias, Big Queen Laurita Dollis, her voice hoarse from signing and chanting the night before, tells me her suit weighs over eighty pounds—comparable to full kit for servicemembers in the armed forces. She is sitting on a cooler by the suits, resting and fielding questions from interested onlookers, as are fellow Wild Magnolias. As I crouch to compose a photograph, a woman next to me—tall, cheerful, with a ready, infectious laugh—begins to explain to a visiting couple the significance of the suits. “It goes like this,” she says, pointing at each one in turn: “We got a Big Queen, a Big Chief, that one over there is the Spy Boy…”
We? The word rises above her explanation like a speed bump above the street. The woman is as fair-skinned as I am, and I’m so fair, when I played basketball in high school, my nickname was, simply, “White.” The tourists wander off; as I introduce myself, I pose a question I never would have dreamed of asking, a question that when I was researching Indian traditions during graduate study would have felt unthinkable, and that still does: “Are you an Indian?” I say.
Originally from New Orleans of white ancestry, Red, as she introduces herself, has been immersed in African-American culture for long enough that she now self-identifies as Black. “I never learned how to be white,” she tells me, even as she pulls me into the shade of a nearby oak tree, concerned about her sunburn. She has been attending Indian practices since she was a teenager, but her late boyfriend, who was an Indian, had objected to her joining the Indians on account of her what he saw as her race. Initially she acquiesced and quit practicing, but after his death several years ago, she tells me, she revisited the idea and resumed. “I went to all the practices,” she said, ticking off the locations one by one. “Three, four days a week.” Now 34, having practiced with the Indians for nearly two decades, her training is over, and this coming year she will join the Wild Magnolias.
I ask her how she ended up in this tribe. Simple, she says: because of their passion and intensity, she said. The Wild Magnolias are one of the most respected tribes in the city—led for years by the late Theodore Emile ‘Bo’ Dollis, Sr and his Queen Laurita, they were one of the first tribes to reunite after the storm and have remained passionate advocates for the tradition ever since. (They were also instrumental early on in recording Indian songs, with their albums Wild Magnolias and They Call Us Wild in the mid-1970’s.) Dollis, Sr. passed on the figurative mantle of the Wild Magnolias two years ago to his son ‘Bo’ Jr, whose physical mantle is, this year, three times the size of his own body, resplendent in soft pinks and baby blues, flaring like a corona in every direction. Red isn’t masking, but later on she will march with the tribe and sing with them, and begin work on her suit the following day. Her design will feature four generations of her family: her grandmother, her mother, herself, and her daughter, and her colors will be royal purple and emerald green.
Pressed on her unusual position, Red breaks out into a massive grin, then quickly shifts into a reflective stance, leaning back on her hip in thought. After a moment she says that what she loves most about the Indians is the family atmosphere, the sense and responsibility of carrying on a tradition. “I want to be a part of something that is bigger than me,” she says. “This has been going on for generations.” I ask if she ever sees her daughter, who is in elementary school, becoming a Mardi Gras Indian too. “Oh, she’s way too young for that now,” she says. But later? Red shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “When she’s old enough to decide for herself.” As she speaks a man veers too close to one of the suits—“One foot away!” she calls out to him, then turns back to me and sighs. “I been doing that all day.” Wiping her forehead, she says that she needs to sit down. Looking over at Bo Jr., she asks him “You got this?” He nods, and shoos a few more onlookers away. I fetch us a few drinks from a nearby trailer and tell her I’ll catch her later. “Alright, baby,” she says. “You stay cool.”
It’s getting harder: the sun is high overhead, and sweat glistens on everyone’s face, the harbinger of the local summertime sheen. It’s tempting to find a beer and a spot in the shade, but there’s music on LaSalle, where the Single Men Social Aid and Pleasure Club are rolling, the Stooges Brass Band leading the charge. Wandering down that way, I peruse the range of culinary delights on offer, which in the two short weeks between Mardi Gras and Super Sunday seem to have grown: sausage dogs, racks of ribs, roasted half-chickens, sno-balls, cotton candy, red beans and rice, jambalaya, pork chops on skewers, yakamein, and the foil-wrapped creation in my hand, what my brother calls on inspection a barbecued cheeseburger po-boy. I just call it astounding.
The parade rolls on past AL Davis Community Church, taking with it several hundred second-liners, the men strutting in their suits and the ladies, led by the beautiful Queen Kristal, tossing purple roses to the crowd from atop their float. Later, they’ll circle the park, where back within its walls, Indians are beginning to march. Entering at the gate off Freret and streaming towards the central pavilion, they gather in loose pockets as Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, leads the crowd in a lively, hip-shaking rendition of “Sew, Sew, Sew.” Amid the many shapes, colors, and sizes of people, though, one sight stands out: a long line of white feathers, bobbing and weaving through the crowd. As white is a sacred color for Indians, used only on specific occasions—the first or last time a tribe marches, or on significant anniversaries—I race over to where the Burning Spear Mardi Gras Indians have arrived.
The correct form of greeting for a masking Indian is to call them “pretty.” But the word is more than just a compliment of the suit—it’s a signal of recognition of the tradition, a form of address that unites history, pride, ambition, spectacle, and joy. Between Chiefs and Queens it establishes respect, respect which in previous years was won physically, and occasionally at the cost of loss of life (as described in the song “Brother John”). That changed with the intervention of Big Chief Alfred Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, who—according to the poet and historian Kalamu ya Salaam—famously took the fight to the tribes so pointedly that none of them ever fought again. His son, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, carried on this message, declaring before his untimely death in 2005 that Indians should fight “with words and with pretty.”
Following the cries of “pretty!” to their fount, I meet the Burning Spears head-on and follow them through the crowd, processing underneath the park’s pavilion and through to the other side where they pause briefly for photographs. I ask the Big Queen about their colors. The Burning Spears are celebrating their fifth anniversary, she tells me, having broken away from another tribe in 2006, a tribe she does not name. I ask why the split. “We just weren’t seeing the flourishing,” she says. “We wanted to go in our own direction.” (Indians breaking off from one tribe and forming their own is not uncommon; the Yellow Pocahontas originally grew out of the oldest tribe of all, the Creole Wild West.) After the split, the Burning Spears sought and obtained copyright for their designs, and this year is the first they’ve marched together as a unified tribe.
Their suits of the Burning Spears are beyond pretty. They’re magnificent: intricate, fierce, and intimidating. The Big Queen’s design depicts what she calls “the jungle through the eyes of the lion,” featuring every animal she could fit upon its frame. The lion reflects her own inner strength, she says, but also gives her its power when she masks. The Wild Man of the Burning Spears is especially fearsome, with scattered bones, rabbit tails, and miniature skulls adorning his giant horns (traditionally used to part the crowd for the Chiefs and Queens). I’d like to stay and speak further, but the Burning Spears are impatient, with more work to do: parading through the crowd, greeting other Indians, making known their name.
Time is fluid in New Orleans, like its river. Events here rarely obey the injunctions of the clock, preferring that subtle range of motion around the hour. Some events ignore it altogether; when it grows close to five o’clock—the time of an appointment I can’t break—the parade, which was to have begun at two, has barely dreamed of forming. “When are they going to get rolling?” I’d asked a gentleman named Henry hovering by the suits of the Cheyenne Tribe. “We already rolling,” he cackles, and pulls on his beer. “I been rolling since seven o’clock this morning.” So it will, soon, as the downtown Indians begin descend upon the park—the Mohawk Hunters making a particularly bold entrance—and the rest of the tribes, the Wild Magnolias included, dress and march towards the stage.
Bidding Red—who is underneath the shade, babysitting and guarding the Wild Magnolias’ belongings—farewell, I make my way out of the park. With pleasure I note the way the crowds ignore the streetlights, flicking silently from red to yellow to green. Though it may not look like it to the casual onlooker, a significant amount of work is taking place: the work of delighting in shared company, the work of enjoying fine food and drink, the work of music flying joyfully out of the brass, and of drumbeats inviting a body to move, the work of laws both of statute and of respect in maintaining a safe environment, and the work of untold thankless months coalescing in several brief, unforgettable hours.
Less visible, however, for now, is the work of a tradition reshaping itself. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot considers the impact innovation and variation has on forms of art. “What happens when a new work of art is created,” he writes, “is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.” A half-century later, Salaam echoed that sentiment in his essay on Indian culture, noting that “Some artifacts encompass or exemplify the cultural values of their time, others ostentatiously break with tradition (in the process creating a new tradition and enriching the old tradition—there is no escaping one’s cultural legacies).”
Thrilling, then, that a woman named Red, born white, is set to adopt a tradition that throughout its history has been Black, and that her name bears the honor of the tradition’s most sacred song, “Indian Red.” Provocative, too, how she raises the question of how, and under what conditions, breaking with tradition actually entails joining it—breaking with tradition by breaking tradition itself. By her own account, and the account of the other Wild Magnolias, Red is the first non African-American in Indian history, to all of their combined knowledges. By slipping that first slender thread through the eye of that needle the day after Super Sunday, Red has slipped her own through the eye of a needle far larger, just as she wished. Over the coming weeks and months, as she lays her designs upon the canvas, arranges colored beads into the faces of her ancestors and her offspring, rubs the pain out of the calluses on her fingers, and sews the last of the feathers on her crown, we will all feel a stirring in the air. And when at last, on Mardi Gras Day in 2012, she steps out onto the street in full, royal regalia—the Fourth Queen of the Wild Magnolias—she will make more than the walls the houses and the slabs of the pavement and the stretched goatskins of the drums and the tambourines shake. Red will make history itself tremble with the first feathered foot that hits the ground.
Now that’s pretty.
The top image is a photo of a member of the Mohawk Hunters.