Beating Their Drums
Mardi Gras Indians celebrate themselves
Awards banquets are typically drawn-out yawners that few people apart from the winners and their close ones would attend on purpose.
Not so the Mardi Gras Indians Crystal Feather dinner, which had its ninth iteration mid-August at Basin Street Station.
Crystal Feather is the brainchild of Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Queen of Guardians of the Flame (founded by her father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr.) and Dr. Roslyn Smith, a career educator and colleague of the late chief.
The animating concept was simple enough: to honor various Mardi Gras Indians. But a banquet for urban warriors with a renegade tradition, marked by collisions with NOPD, does seem a contradiction in terms. Harrison-Nelson and Smith are flexible, thus did the Music Heritage Award this year go to Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, not an Indian, who moved through the room in a bright yellow suit with turquoise shoes, shaking hands and kissing people like a man running for city council.
“Indian culture” has come far since Mardi Gras 1930, when a cop took a spear to the neck.
The romance that began in the 1970s between certain Indian tribes and people with cameras blossomed alongside the march of street chants and percussive rhythms into studio sessions for discs such as the classic The Wild Tchoupitoulas. The melodic arrangements on that record, around the bravura vocals of Big Chief Jolley (the late George Landry) had long influence. The Indians hit the major media in 2010 when the HBO series “Treme” featured a Big Chief returning after Hurricane Katrina as one of the plotlines.
Another sign of evolution was the Feather Award given to Big Queen Wanda Womble of the Cheyenne Hunters. “Women are becoming much more active as Indians,” says Harrison-Nelson, who has done a good share of making that happen.
The Cheynne Hunters are an offshoot of an older gang, the Golden Blades, whose longtime Big Chief, Paul Longpré, died at age 97 on July 23 this year. (Longpré was a major source for the Indian history I worked on for the history Up From the Cradle of Jazz with my colleagues Jonathan Foose and Tad Jones.) In fall 1980 I escorted Big Chief Longpré to the Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C. He was by then long-retired as an Indian, though his blazing suit drew an army of admirers as he walked along the mall, recalling the high point of the Golden Blades when he sent upward of 170 masked Indians into Mardi Gras streets in the mid-’60s. That is a huge number for one tribe; most today have at most 20, but in the surging energies of the civil rights era, art played a potent role in life.
“Bad guys, gamblers, peddlers, playboys that pimped the womens – those were the guys that masked Indian,” he said at the Smithsonian exhibit session that day. “Ninety percent of the city scorned the Indians; that was one reason why police was so hard on the Indians.”
Tootie Montana, the late Big Chief of Yellow Pocahontas, echoed Longpré in telling me that the early Indian gangs included “stone killers.” Yet the impact of chieftains such as Montana, Longpré and Harrison seems a major factor in how the Indians shed the internecine violence and in the 1940s, according to Longpré, began “competing for the beauty of costumes.” The NOPD didn’t go merrily along, and Indians accused cops of harassing them for decades thereafter. In summer 2005, Big Chief Tootie stood before the city council, railing against the police; he fell from the podium in mid-oratory, dying of a heart attack as unmasked Indians gathered around him.
The Indians’ history is far from complete. I thank the Big Chiefs I’ve named here for how much of their lives they shared.