No matter the weather, no matter the losses, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans work hard to preserve their distinctive contribution to the city’s flourishing street culture.
On March 4, 2014, most of New Orleans was either watching the skies or their favorite Weather Channel radar sweep, hoping the city could catch a break on a bleak Mardi Gras morning.
Denizens who had hoped to catch the carnival season's last parades were wondering if they would be cancelled because of plummeting temperatures and persistent thunderstorms. Folks who had spent months designing clever or elaborate costumes were fashioning some kind of makeshift Visqueen poncho to protect their hand-sewn Ewok Majorette getup from the elements or were rethinking their Belly Dancing Bea Arthur body-paint concept with a layer of waterproof wool — or with the help of a few more morning Jell-O shots.
It was to be the worst Mardi Gras Day in recent memory, with highs of 37 degrees, 100 percent chance of precipitation.
All. Damned. Day.
The Hard Head Hunters rolling at JazzFest. Top: Flagboy Robert “Slim” Stevenson in the lead. Below: GangFlag DooWee (Alphonse Robair) of the Hard Head Hunters. Header image: Big Chief James Battiste (Young Brave Hunters) posts guard outside the funeral of Big Chief Larry Bannock.
But no one was more disappointed than members of the city's black Mardi Gras Indian community, who had spent the better part of the year building elaborate suits for their annual debut on Carnival morning.
The suits — beaded, sequined, plumed and bejeweled — can take hundreds of hours of precise, painstaking labor for practitioners of one of New Orleans' most storied street cultures. Intricate headdresses inspired by the war garb of the Native Americans of the Great Plains are rendered in Day-Glo marabou down and wispy, Technicolor ostrich feathers. Patient artisans sew tiny, multicolored glass beads half the size of rice grains into elaborate narrative scenes of Wild West mythology.
A year's worth of vision, craft and needlework traditionally culminates on Mardi Gras day, when the Indian tribes unveil this year's suits. After a traditional performance of "Indian Red" (one of the sacred songs in the repertoire), the "gangs" roam the neighborhoods, searching out other tribes for ritual confrontations that incorporate thundering drumbeats, intricate tambourine rhythms and powerful chants that echo through the streets. After hours on the streets, the Downtown tribes — 9th Ward Comanche Hunters, Hard Head Hunters, Yellow Pocahontas, Creole Osceolas, Washitaw Nation, Young Generation — gather under the hulking Claiborne Overpass, while the Uptown gangs — Creole Wild West, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Blades, Wild Magnolias, Shining Star Hunters — rove near the corner of Second and Dryades.
But not in 2014.
Top: Spyboy Vern (Jovan Jordan) of the Hard Head Hunters at WestFest. Below: Spyboy Charlie Tenner (Comanche Hunters) kicks off St. Joseph’s Night by singing “Indian Red.”
A modern Indian suit — complete with beaded patches, heavy-gauge canvas apron and towering feathered "crown" — is an almost insanely delicate work that can weigh well over 100 pounds and can catch wind gusts like a sail. Wearing one requires an athlete's combination of strength and stamina, which matches the commitment to tradition and craftsmanship in "masking Indian."
They can roll in the cold. They can take the heat. But for Mardi Gras Indians, rain is the deal-breaker. Beads and canvas can be dried, but one quick downpour and the delicate feathers collapse into colorful mush. It's a harsh reality: There's no such thing as a waterproof ostrich plume.
So after spending months "pushing that needle," getting ready for the glorious unveiling at Carnival in 2014, most of the Indians stayed home — their precious suits safe from the elements but lying fallow on the most important day of the year.
The Indians, however, had their eyes on that year’s long game —since Mardi Gras Indians don’t mask Indian only on Mardi Gras day. Designed to last a single year, an Indian suit has a short, glorious lifespan — an annual cycle that includes not only Fat Tuesday, but also a handful of street events and cultural festivals that make up the Mardi Gras Indians calendar.
After Mardi Gras day, Indians come out on St. Joseph's Night (March 19), and they stage three community-based daytime gatherings (known informally as "Super Sundays") over the course of the year. Some also perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late spring. And of course, if a prominent Indian passes away, an informal honor guard appears (often in full regalia) to pay last respects.
The photos in this collection represent how the Indians rebounded from the cold, wet realities of Mardi Gras 2014 and carried one of New Orleans’ most distinctive cultures to the streets for another year.
Step by step. Block by block. And most importantly, bead by bead.
Top: Father and son — the Hard Head Hunters’ Flagboy Ryan Burrows Sr. (in yellow) and Little Chief Ryan Burrows Jr. (in blue). Below: Big Chief Waddie Griffin (Young Cherokee) and his crew at Westfest.
With Mardi Gras morning a literal washout in 2014, the Indians looked forward to a debut on the second most important date on the black Indian calendar — St. Joseph's Night.
While the date for Mardi Gras moves around year to year, St. Joseph's Night holds steady on March 19. Tied to the Catholic fest day of the same name, this is the second chance for Indians to "battle" each other in the city's neighborhoods with very few rules to get in the way. At sundown, the strains of "Indian Red" float across town and drums rumble as the tribes prepare for a late night of hunting and nocturnal maneuvers.
On St. Joseph's Night, tribes go where they please, but often congregate at different hot spots across town. Uptown tribes gravitate to the corridor between A.L. Davis Park and the corner of 2nd and Dryades streets. Downtown tribes often show up, but after stopping by to pay respects to family and community stalwarts too old to make it past the front porch.
Left: Spyboy ManMan (Michael Tenner) of the Comanche Hunters. Right: Queen Ya (Barbara Scott) of the Wild Magnolias takes to the Uptown streets, St. Joseph’s Night.
As the only nighttime event of the season, St. Joseph's Night is absolutely immersive, bordering on overwhelming. Onlookers crowd the sidewalks and push to see detail in the suits, while the Indians perform duties according to their positions — Spyboy, Flagboy, Wildman, Queen and Chief — often at odds with the confrontational tasks at hand. Artificial light rules the night, whether it be streetlights, battery-fueled halogen floodlights or tiny LEDs emanating from smartphones in video mode.
With no physical boundaries between the crowds and the tribes in motion, the senses of chaos and exhilaration ebb and flow in a drum-driven flash. As long as they "stay the hell out the way" (a key refrain from one of the universal Indian chants), civilians can be deep in the mix as the action swirls.
Top: Big Chief Kentrell Watson Sr. (Wild Mohicans), Uptown Super Sunday. Below: Creole Wild West Little Chief Bam (Kendell Cook Jr.) comes out on Super Sunday as Kendell Cook Sr. beats the drum.
The Sunday nearest St. Joseph's (this year 15 March) is usually designated as "Super Sunday" by the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Held Uptown at A.L. Davis Park, the afternoon gathering of tribes is meant as a show for the larger community and a chance to present this year's suits in a more parade-like atmosphere.
And once again, impending thunderstorms pushed the Super Sunday celebrations from one frustrating Sunday to the next. But when the skies finally cleared, the feathered processions choked the Uptown streets.
If the Indian action on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Night is serious, action during the daytime parades skews more toward performance and presentation. The tribes gather, but follow a prescribed route that begins and ends at the park, where local brass bands provide funky musical entertainment for the assembled crowds. Stern-faced Indians pause to let strangers grab a quick selfie or flash a cheesy smile or peace sign pose for the folks back home. After they make the walk, Indians splay out the heavier parts of their suits (the heavy beaded aprons and huge crown/headboard combinations) on the grass for the crowds to admire and examine.
Two other similar festivals give locals ample time to interact with the Indians. The Circle of Chiefs organization gathers at Bayou St. John before heading downtown. And a third Sunday gathering — WestFest — draws crowds across the river to Algiers, in the city's 15th Ward, in a show of respect for Big Chief Tyrone Casby and the Mohawk Hunters (for years the sole tribe on the urban west bank of the Mississippi).
Top: Big Chief Keitoe Jones and Queen Sally of the Seminoles at JazzFest. Second photo: Little Chief Cameron Bourne of the White Cloud Hunters. Bottom: Big Chief Keitoe in action.
For decades, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has provided an structured showcase of Mardi Gras Indian traditions and music. And in 2014, it was the one annual event that proceeded as scheduled. After a year of "rain in the forecast," JazzFest felt like an outright springtime miracle.
As mainstream acts like Phish, Bruce Springsteen and Solange Knowles appeared on the Jumbotrons, the Indians anchored their own corner of the world, sharing the smaller Jazz and Heritage Stage with brass bands and other New Orleans-based acts.
JazzFest is often a visitor's surprising gateway into black Indian culture. The relentless drumbeat usually comes first, along with the chants and freestyle vocals floating over the top. On the way to the beer tent, folks catch a side glimpse of an oscillating wall of feathers, or get drawn in by the hypnotic, repetitive beat, or run into a tribe parading between stages.
Onstage at JazzFest. Top: Big Chief Charles Collins of the White Cloud Hunters. Bottom: members of the Comanche Hunters tribe (Wildman Ro Harris, Flagboy Clifton Smith, Flagboy Vern Freeman, Big Chief KeKe Gibson).
When Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson announces a death within the Mardi Gras Indian tribe, she usually sends out an email with this simple, two-word subject line: "Another Ancestor." In her dual roles as co-founder of the New Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, Ms. Harrison-Nelson tends to both the news and traditions of the Indian community. And in 2014, that meant regularly being the bearer of sad tidings.
Over the course of the year, many of the older Indians passed away, triggering a rapidfire succession of obituary updates and sorrow in the community. In the days before Jazzfest, Spyboy Teral Butler of the Red Hawk Hunters passed away, followed by Big Chief Larry Bannock (Golden Star Hunters), Big Chief Jack Green (Red, White and Blue), Big Chief Paul Longpre (Golden Blades), Big Chief Curtis Williams Jr. ("Chief Sug" of the Cheyenne Hunters) and others.
Each passing brought with it the rituals of a black Indian funeral: honor guards, solemn processions and a final singing of "Indian Red" before cutting the body loose for burial.
Funeral blues. Top: Flagboy K9 (Alphonse Feliciana, Golden Blades) stands guard at Big Chief Larry Bannock’s funeral. Second photo: Gang Spy Callie Harness of the Wild Magnolias mourns Chief Bo Dollis. Third photo: Spy Boy Dow Edwards of the Mohawk Hunters at Big Chief Bannock’s funeral.
With the new season weeks away, mid-January of 2015 brought the passing of the legendary Big Chief Theodore "Bo" Dollis of the Wild Magnolias, a driving force in the worldwide spread of Mardi Gras Indian music. Acknowledged as one of the great voices of the tradition, Dollis (along with Monk Boudreaux, currently Chief of the Golden Eagles) combined the percussive, a cappella chants of the Indians with funk in the 1970s and defined a new era in the culture.
In the days between Dollis' death and his official funeral services, groups of Indians gathered to chant and drum, moving from bar to bar in honor of the Chief. His Uptown neighborhood rang with memorial songs well into the night. And after an afternoon viewing at the historic Carver Theater in the Treme neighborhood, the community returned Uptown to Chief Bo's neighborhood for a proper service: a singing of “Indian Red,” a slow walk with the casket, and a sendoff that was truly fit for a Big Chief and the family he left behind.