Newsbeat: Big Chief Goes to Washington

Most people encounter Mardi Gras Indians on the streets during parades. But next month, dignitaries and leaders of the arts world will see a very prominent Mardi Gras Indian on the dais accepting one of the nation’s elite artistic honors.

The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) has named Theodore “Bo” Dollis, big chief of the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians, a 2011 National Heritage Fellow. The fellowship is considered the nation’s most prestigious award in the folk and traditional arts communities and this month Dollis and other recipients will be honored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said the fellowship is the nation’s acknowledgement of the highest level of artistic mastery.

“Through their contributions, we have been challenged, enlightened, and charmed, and we thank them for devoting their careers to expanding and supporting their art forms,” Landesman said.

Dollis has indeed devoted his life to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. He grew up in Central City and at first secretly attended the practices one local group held in a friend’s backyard. In 1957, he “masked” for the first time, wearing one of the distinctive bead-and-feather costumes he would later become famous for crafting. By ’64, Dollis was big chief of the Wild Magnolias.

In addition to his costume-making skills, the NEA lauded Dollis for his performances and credited him with helping merge Mardi Gras Indian sounds with New Orleans funk and R&B. The Wild Magnolias band was featured at the inaugural New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, and they’ve traveled the globe to share this distinctly local art form with audiences worldwide.

While Hurricane Katrina scattered some Mardi Gras Indian tribes and caused economic hardship for members, the disaster also focused attention on the value of such cultural traditions and inspired support for their preservation. For instance, Xavier University now runs its Mardi Gras Indian Arts program, an eight-week enrichment course for local children to learn the history and customs behind the tradition.

The NEA accepts fellowship nominations from the public and then asks a panel of experts in folk and traditional arts to assess each on both their artistic accomplishments and on their contributions as practitioners and teachers.


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