In New Orleans, where so many traditions are handed across the generations through family ties, teaching is far from being an exclusively institutional enterprise. Some of the most important educators in the city are certified only by their standing in the community and their personal commitment to pass on information that was given to them by wise elders when they were youngsters. Big Chief Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians is such a man.
Chief Howard has been teaching neighborhood children Mardi Gras Indian traditions and sewing techniques for more than 15 years. He currently teaches a sewing class on Saturday afternoons, instructing young people who express an interest in finding out more about this distinct culture, a combination of generations-old African traditions and an expression of the historic ties displaced African slaves built with Native Americans. Miller teaches about 20 children ranging from elementary school to high school age.
Bertrand Butler, Director of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, has high praise for Miller’s work.
“How do you bring young people into the Mardi Gras Indian culture?” Butler asks. “Case in point, Chief Howard of the Creole Wild West has a class every Saturday in A.L. Davis Park at LaSalle and Washington where they have Super Sunday. The kids in the neighborhood are welcome to come there and visualize what it takes to become a Mardi Gras Indian. It’s all about the needle and thread. The kids come there and see what’s going on. They might see it Mardi Gras day and say ‘I wanna do that.’ Sometimes we have 25, 30 kids there. They won’t all be able to make it on the street because they can’t all finance what it costs to make a suit. We help as many as we can. The next year we’ll try to help those that we couldn’t help. Chief Howard has at least five kids sewing suits at his house right now.”
We caught up with Chief Howard just before one of his weekly sessions and he explained his reasons for starting the Saturday program.
“We wanted to teach them how to sew and to learn the history of the culture and the meaning of it, the signals and the spiritual dances and chants. We started doing the class at the park about five years ago. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian council has been looking for ways to keep our culture intact, so that’s what we’re trying to do, preserve our culture. If we can get the young people involved, we’ve got the chance to see the Creole Wild West roll over for another 100 years.
“In the community most of the kids are aware of the Mardi Gras Indians, so we put the word out that we’re doing this every week and they’re welcome to become part of it. This is necessary because though in some cases the tradition is passed on through the family, in many cases it’s not. Nobody in my family was involved in it. It’s not about being a family tradition. It’s about who wants to be involved. Even in the case of family members, leadership shouldn’t be passed on just for that reason, the next leader should be chosen because they’re the best for the job. When you pass it on you want to put it in the hands of the best person that you think can lead.
“It’s a special calling to be a teacher. Not everybody can teach. In order to teach you must know about and understand the tradition. It took me five years to learn how to properly put a suit together, but then it took me another 20 years to understand the history of the culture. I talked to many of the older chiefs and they laid down the history of the culture to me. I think there is a hunger for information in young people. I think they want people to teach them, to show them. We have about 20 kids or more that are going to be masking out this year. We want to teach them to sew their own suits so that when they come out there they can feel the spirit that we feel, that moment when you put on your first suit and look in the mirror and know that we sewed that, it came from our time and our mind and our spirit. We want them to feel that. It’s a great thing.
“They are all active members of the Creole Wild West. Some of them are older now and are in a position to be flag boy now, spy boy now. We want them to teach the next generation the way we taught them. People don’t know our history because when we started back in the days of slavery we didn’t want people to know what we were doing. So I think people around the world aren’t aware that we’re one of the oldest American cultures. We think most New Orleans music comes out of the chanting and spirits of our music.”