Mardi Gras Indians have been igniting dancers in music clubs since the 1970s. The Dixie Cups sing a resonant take on Indian lore, “Iko Iko”: “My Flag Boy and your Flag Boy, sitting by the fire / My Flag Boy told your Flag Boy, ‘I’m going to set your flag on fire.’”
It takes some fire to be a Flag Boy, you can bet your back pay on that. But what goes into the Flag Boy role for the Big Chief of a given tribe?
That is one question animating the Flag Boy Gang Flag Yearbook, a Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame work edited by Cherice Harrison-Nelson, an Indian Queen and a founder of the hall, and Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, a University of New Orleans cultural anthropology professor and writer-photographer chronicling the tradition.
Space prohibits naming all the writers and photographers who contribute profiles. In spite of occasional typos, this 120-page catalogue, published with support of The City of New Orleans, an Edward Wisner Donation Grant, National Performance Network and Basin St. Station, is an oral history gem with fine images to boot.
In a profile of Ronnel Butler, the Redhawk Hunters’ Flag Boy, Tulane ethno-musicologist Matt Sakakeeny writes: “It takes a steady hand to be a barber and to be a Flag Boy.
Ronnel’s personality is perfectly suited to the position. He is always paying attention and nothing seems to faze him. If the job of the Spy Noy or the Wild Man is to cause commotion, the job of the Flag Boy is to stay clam and alert, to hold tight by the Big Chief and to decide who gets through to him and who does not. He says that, ‘basically, I’m the security guard.’”
For all of the media coverage and pop culture glamour in which the Indians soak, the social dynamics of various gangs vary greatly.
Congo Square author Freddi Williams Evans provides a mini-history of a group that has received little press attention in her profile of Charles Dillon, the Mohawk Hunters’ Flag Boy: “The Mohawk Hunters, founded in 1941 by Frank Casby, is in fact one of the largest tribes in the Mardi Gras Indian community, and it’s the only one on the West Bank. It is so large that several positions are ranked, such as first and second flags. The tribe is still based where it began, in the black community of Old Algiers. The tribe has a reputation of parading through its neighborhoods. The tribe is also known for a high standard of community service.”
Tyrone Casby, today’s Big Chief, is the principal of Orleans Parish Youth Study Center. “The Mohawk Hunters attract men and women from all walks of life,” writes Evans, “including teachers, lawyers, barbers, service workers and coaches.” Flag Boy Charles Dillon, a Southern University graduate, has a landscaping company; he’s a part-time juvenile probation officer and NORD football coach, “an engaged father and a supportive husband.”
On why he brought his sons into the Mohawk Hunters, Dillon is pragmatic: “Because of the culture, family tradition and it teaches them how to be businessmen.”
The impetus to be a Flag Boy varies. Athanase Johnson of Geronimo Hunters “took the name ‘Iron Man’ by showing his toughness after accidentally running into a car headfirst as a young boy,” writes Charles Lockwood. “Iron Man has over four decades of experiences as a decorator and costume maker.”
Iron Man explains: “It’s very expensive. And in our culture Uptown, if you can’t come right, don’t come at all. And that’s my motto.”
Victor Harris of Mandingo Warriors has for years been making neo-African masks and costumes that stand apart from the Native American suits that most tribes use as the template for their outfits.
Mandingo Warriors’ Flag Boy Perry Emery is pictured in a stunning black-feathered outfit with beaded mask and breast plate more African than Indian. “You take your duties to your chief, your community, your culture and to yourself,” he says in Ehrenreich’s profile.
We could all heed lessons like that.