An Evening with the Creole Wild West
Though a dazzling presence in the popular imagination, Mardi Gras Indian gangs (as these groups have named themselves) aren’t personally well known to music lovers. People at the New Orleans Country Club have been dancing to Deacon John’s band for decades; so have the masses at Tipitina’s and concert venues. People see the bandmaster in Winn Dixie and say, “Hey, Deacon!” He nods with a smile of irony.
Imagine how many names he has forgotten in 40 years of gigs. How many of you loyal readers have put aside the National Inquirer in a supermarket line because you recognized a Mardi Gras Indian?
Certain Indian lyrics, “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way,” are common currency of dance music across the society, yet people sing along without a clue as to the meaning of the street chants.
The Creole Wild West is the oldest Mardi Gras Indian group, according to the late Allison “Tootie” Montana, a lion of the 7th Ward who led the Yellow Pocahontas gang across 50-plus years. He died of a heart attack while testifying on behalf of the Indians at a raucous city council meeting in June 2005. In 1980, he told me that his grand-uncle, a plasterer named Becate Batiste, founded the first Carnival tribe in the early 1880s, under the name Creole Wild West. Some time later, the group split and a new tribe formed, Yellow Pocahontas, whose leadership he later inherited.
Tootie was a metal lather who often attended St. Jude Novenas, an ironic counterpoint to his persona of an urban warrior. The stunning costumes he sewed drew museum curators, elevating Indian handicraft to folk art. In most years two-dozen or so gangs will mask, with the Big Chief preceded by Flag Boy, Spy Boy and the Wild Man.
“Wild Man Rock was a cat who lived out by a junk heap, way down Elysian Fields where people dumped their garbage,” Tootie recalled. “He fished old cigarettes out the trash and strung them over the roof where he lived, let ’em dry in the sun and rolled himself cigarettes. And let me tell you: he was wild. You never saw him so much until Carnival came. Then he’d come bargin’ out with a ring in his nose, carryin’ bones and a spear, whoopin’ and carryin’ on. [He] used to throw that spear and scare all hell out of people.”
In late April, Creole Wild West members performed at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ historic Turners Hall in the Central Business District, launching a cultural series organized by LEH’s Brian Boyles. An overflow crowd watched eight men in costumes, the billowing feathers and ostrich plumes radiating red, green, blue and orange light as they sang chants while three young boys in their costumes danced in parodies of fighting, using plastic bows and toy guns. The energy level in the room was off the charts. Watching the boys dance I couldn’t help think about kids not much older being slaughtered by drug violence day after day, while the men of the Mardi Gras Indians were investing their sons with a tradition of ritual violence, in costume, with song – an art form.
After the performance, members of the gang discussed what they do with Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive director, Dr. Bruce Boyd Raeburn.
Said one: “I’m Wild Man Mackie. We’ve been lucky – blessed – to have four Wild Men … I switched [from another gang] to Creole Wild West in 1979. Tried my hand at Spy Boy, came back to Wild Man. There’s a lot the Wild Man got to do.”
“We have no written documents,” explained the Second Chief, Howard Miller. “We’re still searching out where our name came from … The whole Indian thing had to portray Native Americans because we couldn’t gather as Africans. We portrayed Indians to be ourselves.”
“It’s really handed down,” explained Big Chief Walter Cook. “My daddy participated in the Wild Magnolias … My grandmother worked on Rampart Street [as a seamstress] making costumes for the kings of the parades. She took some [of the cloth] to give my daddy for him to be an Indian.”
The Big Chief lost his home in the flood but made it back to mask for 2006. “We’re expressing our freedom, that we’re still here, expressing our freedom in our own way,” he said. He remembered Wild Men of his youth: “Them people would come with moss and bones out of their mouths. I was scared myself. The role of the Wild Man is to keep the people off the chief.”
Big Chief Walter turned to his advance man: “You’re the politest Wild Man I ever had.”