A Once-Guarded Tradition Spills Open In New Orleans' Streets
On a sunny Sunday in New Orleans, barbecue stands and ice-filled coolers line a closed-off street. Central City is not a tourist zone, but people pack in — many with cameras and long lenses. A mass of color begins to move.
Mardi Gras Indians, maybe a hundred or more from all around the city, wear sky-to-pavement costumes: heavy, wide headdresses several feet tall, down to embroidered satin boots. It's all embellished with beads, sequins and countless plumes of marabou feathers, and each suit is a masterpiece in neon green, pink or orange. It's an African-American tradition that goes back more than a century, to honor collaboration between Native Americans and slaves.
"I'm Big Chief Tugga Cloud and I'm 17 years old," says one lanky teenager. "We go by Mr. Ed's house every evening after school, and we sew our suits every year with needle and thread." Tugga Cloud leads the Red Flame Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian and youth outreach group started by Ed Buckner.
"See, I'm trying to reinvent the community and get the community involved," Buckner says. "We talk about violence. These 15 or 20 young black men are going to improve their lives a little bit and get some direction, and know which way to go."
The group has a Facebook page and a GoFundMe page to raise money. They put up videos on YouTube, and perform for private events.
That's a big shift from the way Mardi Gras Indian culture started. The black Indians were mysterious, rarely announcing where or when they'd take to the streets. Many outsiders considered them dangerous. Now, even the city's official tourism campaign celebrates them: A recent ad shows a Mardi Gras Indian dancing at sunset with a young child.
This full embrace of the culture is pretty new. Ten years ago on St. Joseph's night, police clashed with Mardi Gras Indians. Bertrand Butler is co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, a nonprofit that brings together different tribes; he says he was beaten by officers.
"They didn't know anything about the culture," Butler says. "If they did, they did not care."
Butler and others organized a special city council session. It was there, in 2005, that Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas stood to say his piece.
"Police cars coming all kinds of ways and I said, what is this? 'You all get out of the street, get on the sidewalk.' For what? We weren't doing nothing," Montana said.
Then, as he tried to continue his statement, he collapsed, gasping. The chant "Indian Red" went up in the council chambers as paramedics carried him out.
"So the Indians got behind the ambulance, and sang all the way to Charity Hospital, and they said he was deceased," Butler recalls.
Montana's death, followed by the floods of Hurricane Katrina shortly after, marked a turning point. The city and the Indians began to work together more. NOPD Deputy Chief Bob Bardy even included them in police academy training.
"It was important on my end that my police officers understood the people, an understanding of cultural sensitivity," Bardy says.
It's perhaps because Mardi Gras Indians have had to organize and fight for the right to express their culture that they've not only come back, but thrived.
Tootie Montana's son, Big Chief Darryl Montana, is carrying on his father's tradition. He says he'll teach anyone who is interested in his culture.
"If I was to die today or tomorrow, and not share what I know, then it's going to end up dying," he says. "So, I say, 'Well, I'm gonna teach, and I'll show them everything I know.' Something that took me almost 50 years to learn, to get to where I'm at, I'd like to give it to them now."
As Mardi Gras Indians like him prepare for this St. Joseph's night, it seems their culture belongs more to New Orleans — more to the world, really — a once-secretive tradition opened up to all.
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