The Mardi Gras Indians carry a cultural memory rooted in dances of enslaved Africans at the antebellum park, Congo Square. Choctaw and other indigenous peoples watched the swirling ring dances with people in costumes, and as black people moved beyond slavery, the circles opened into streams of dancers following bands in streets, and black men parading at Mardi Gras in costumes of Native Americans.
The precise source of origin for Black Indians, or Masked Indians – the term preferred by some Big Chief leaders today – owes much to the late Tootie Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in the Seventh Ward. Montana’s great-uncle founded the first tribe, Creole Wild West, in the 1880s. No evidence has yet surfaced on Masked Indians with a neighborhood-based tribe before that, but oral traditions without corroborating documents rarely furnish tidy creation accounts.
The costume art is a story in its own right. Today’s leading figure is Victor Harris, otherwise known as Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi and Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, a Seventh Ward group. Harris has been at it for 53 years. Since the 1980s his beaded masks, sleeves and coats for the many-feathered costumes have shown an evolving neo-African style with touches of Cubism unlike other suits of Masked Indians.
In a popular culture with a meat parade of people famous for being famous, Big Chief Victor is the opposite of a media hound or celebrity wannabe. That is why the story of a man known for abruptly changing parade routes and stiff-arming interviewers makes for a compelling read in the new book, “Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors”. Edited by Rachel Breunlin for UNO Press’s Neighborhood Story Project, the book features photographs that sometimes seem to move by longtime UNO anthropologist Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, who has spent years documenting the cultural movement surrounding Harris, a brawny force of the cosmos who worked for many years in food services at Charity Hospital.
Masked Indians are a mythic tradition that links each tribal hierarchy to a lineage of Big Chiefs past. Harris’s mentor was Tootie Montana. Around Victor Harris grew a coterie of friends from childhood and young adulthood, sewing across the weeks and months leading up to Mardi Gras, carrying a psyche of resistance in rituals of masking and street dance. The stories captured in the book include that of Sylvester Francis, who founded Backstreet cultural museum in Tremé, a temple to the Indians and jazz funeral tradition. “I’ve known him practically all my life,” Harris, who donated costumes to Backstreet, said of Francis in the book. “He preserves all the culture and history of the inner city.
Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi and Mandingo Warriors perform Saturday May 5 at Jazz Fest on the Jazz and Heritage Stage. Harris and Jeff Ehrenreich will be interviewed at 3:15 that day on the Allison Miner Heritage Stage – not to be missed if you’re at the festival that day. Otherwise, “Fire in the Hole” is a milestone work of oral history, yielding vistas of cultural memory and the role of performance art in the lives of those who carry the culture.