This was my 6th Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday and it still shocks my senses. Music swirls with the smell of grilled meats as everyone gathers at A.L. Davis Park to see the Indians’ elaborately crafted suits which weigh up to 150 pounds, cost up to $5000 (though I’ve heard $9000 once) and can take up to a year to design, construct and bead. When I moved here in 2009, the tribes were still fighting for their right to a permitted parade. This year, I spotted Mayor Mitch Landrieu shaking hands with police parade escorts before things got rolling.
If you don’t know the story, “Some say the relationship between the Africans and the Native Americans came from their shared lot as minorities in the age of slavery. Some say that Africans ‘passed’ as Native Americans to escape some of the worst of the racism present at the time. Many say that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to town in the 1880’s and inspired masking as Indians for show. Most agree that the Native Americans participated in the Underground Railroad and the Africans felt gratitude for their freedom so created the parade as a tribute to those who assisted them. The tribes became known for their yearly violent fights but over time, the physical competitiveness gave way to battles of costumes and dances and songs. In the last 30 years (not sure when), women began costuming also.”
But unlike most other ongoing traditions here, the Indians weren’t given permits for their parades. Then came the Chief of Chiefs “Tootie” Montana. For those who haven’t heard the legendary story, “Tootie Montana started making his own Mardi Gras suits at the age of 10. With his 3-D innovations of the beading, he was ‘the prettiest.’ He rose to the title of Big Chief ‘Tootie’ Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe and became known for his battles of craftsmanship rather than violence. As a result, he was crowned the first and only Chief of Chiefs.
After years of run-ins with police and permit offices over the Indians’ right to parade, the Big Chief took his battle to the New Orleans City Council where they were holding a review of complaints of misconduct by police during Mardi Gras. He was speaking for his people, discussing his 52 year history as an Indian when he died, right then and there, of a heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest second lines in the history of the city and he is considered a martyr.”
In 2012, a truce with the police was finally reached and photos were officially welcomed (another point of contention because of all of the money made on photos of Indians without giving them credit for their artistry). But, like with most cultural shifts, there is a downside. The parades are safer and more people are getting exposed to the amazing craftsmanship and showmanship of the Indians, but I had to crop lots of my photos into weird shapes this year to cut other less zoom-happy photographers out.
There were so many amazing beads and feathers! Spy Boy Dow of the Mohawk Hunters had the sparkliest suit I’ve ever seen. It glinted and dazzled like a sign in Vegas. Big Chief Victor Harris, Spirit of FiYiYi, outdid himself again – this year’s zebra-esque suit was like a trippy optical illusion. My favorite artist remains consistent (yes, it’s partly the beauty of his face – but it’s also the colors and designs). Though I don’t know his name, I photographed him in 2010 and again in 2011 as a Red Hawk Hunter – he seems now to have brought his talents to the Hard Head Hunters. (Eureka! I think I found his name – Alphonse “DooWee” Robair) And I paid closer attention to the beadwork the kids chose like Hello Kitty, a unicorn and a butterfly amongst the other more adult-themed displays.
I’m sorry that I missed the rhinestone-encrusted 3-dimensional suits and panoramas of the Downtown tribes, but the Pelicans were getting ready to take the court… An army of clones couldn’t keep up with all the marvels this city has to offer.