Commodifying the signifier
The 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell (an official mouthful, that!) featured 31 Mardi Gras Indian tribes, or gangs. About a third of them performed on stage, the rest in parades scheduled through the Fair Grounds infield. They are paid as entertainers.
One Jazz Fest booth sells beaded pieces and fine-art photographs of the Black Indian tradition, as part of a trend to provide remuneration for practitioners of a tradition that began in the 1880s as a symbolic rebellion, blacks-as-Indians on the ritual stage of Carnival.
The tradition is changing in subtle ways, while the larger presence of a resistance culture – particularly in its collisions with the police – endures. The suiting art has taken on new meaning for those who do it best. Traditionally, the Big Chief of a given tribe oversaw the suit-sewing and at season’s end insisted the suits be taken apart as a matter of purity. As Wild Magnolias’ Big Chief Bo Dollis sang on the 1974 breakout CD, They Call Us Wild:
“Every year, for Carnival time
We make a new suit
Red yellow green
Purple or blue
We make a new suit”
In time, art curators took interest in the suits; several museums purchased suits. Black Indian art, like the music, had value. Artists like to be paid.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson, daughter of the late Guardians of the Flame founder Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., sold a suit she worked on to Anacostia Museum in Washington for “a nice little piece of money.”
As part of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, Nelson has worked on a Mutual and Fair Use policy in which photographers agree to share a portion of sale of images that feature Indians in the street. “It’s up to the photographer; we want to create an informed buyer’s market.”
The Arts Estuary at 1024 Esplanade Ave. has an exhibition of beaded pieces by Spy Boy Ike (Isaac Edward), 92. They sell in the $200 to $500 range.
“Spy Boy” Dow Edwards, 54, of the Mohawk Hunters since 2008, has an exhibition of his work being planned. His art-filled home is around the corner from the Magazine Street store where his father repaired shoes while he was growing up. Spy Boy Dow is the only lawyer in an Indian gang.
As a boy he saw Zulu and Rex on St. Charles Avenue, near his grandmother’s home on Baronne Street. “I was 6. My uncle said, ‘Let’s go see the Indians.’ My grandmother said, ‘Don’t take the boy.’ I had to go.”
They caught two tribes on Dryades Street off Washington Avenue. “I can remember feathers flying, one guy had a hatchet and another guy shot a shotgun over their heads. Police took the shotgun.”
The thrill burrowed deep. “It wasn’t Mardi Gras – the sounds, the beats, the excitement – without the Indians’ mystique. Nobody in my family was a member.”
After playing football at Walter L. Cohen High School he won a scholarship to Oklahoma Panhandle State, then signed with the New England Patriots. An injury cut short his career.
Back home he worked as an insurance adjuster, then as a paralegal and in 1996 entered Southern law school in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, through a friend he met Tyrone Casby, Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters in Algiers. “Can I be an Indian?” Sure. “Can I use your old patches?” No. You gotta sew your own patches.
Realizing that suits take time, he put the Indian dream on hold. As a lawyer, he was made a partner at Lemle-Kelleher before moving to Irwin, Fritchie, Urquhart and Moore, specializing in transportation law.
After Katrina, Dow Edwards spoke publicly for the Indians in their strife with NOPD over parading rights. Under Big Chief Casby, he began sewing. He made his debut in 2008. “There is nothing more exciting than marching inside a Mardi Gras Indian suit,” he says. “I go through a spiritual journey in creating the suit, thinking about the enslavement of our people, paying homage to those who helped give freedom to slaves. The journey of needle and thread is thinking about ancestors and their plight to gain freedom. I get transformed.”