The clouds are gathering and darkening over the corner of 2nd and Dryades on Mardi Gras 2013. Rain has been forecast. The streets are crowded, and the once organized but now chaotic spread of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian Gang is trying to assemble to make their move back to home base on Valence and Magnolia. Grown women dressed in Crayola-toned stockings, short-shorts, and baby doll bonnets mill about with drinks or flasks in their hands. A couple guys with clumps of Spanish moss hot-glued onto pants and shirts contemplate the weather and the wondrous mix of deep spirit and sheer, stumbling comedy that this scene always possesses. (Confession—I am one of those “Mossmen.”) Indians resplendent in bright yellow ostrich-feather headdresses, turquoise trim, and intricate beaded patches gather next to homeboys in baseball caps holding bass drums. The Skull and Bones guys are putting on their scary and disproportionate white paper-mache heads. Finally, the leader of this krewe, Big Chief Joseph Pierre “Monk” Boudreaux, exits the Sportsman’s Corner Bar, looks around, and starts to get people ready to go. However, it’s too late. The rain has started to sprinkle. It looks like it will get worse, and that means that these magnificent suits that the 7 or 8 gang members spent half a year and a large sum of money on will get ruined. Everyone starts to rush into the bar, but Boudreaux checks out his tribe and starts to sing “I was a little bitty boy when that morning came/And I was jumping shouting lord have mercy raise some sand/But Mama told me when I left home that morning/Son you better not give up not give no morning/but I was little bitty boy from way uptown/and when I leave Mardi Gras morning I won’t bow down.” And, as the entire crowd of awestruck, drunken revelers looks on, the gang starts moving up 2nd Street toward Daneel and the rain stops.
Mardi Gras Indians used to have the reputation of being scoundrels. They were thought to be drunks, drug addicts, violent sociopaths. One of the canonical songs they sing is “Big Chief Like Plenty of Fire Water.” Another is “Cory Died on the Battlefield,” and there was a Cory, really a Corrine who did die in a Mardi Gras Indian confrontation near or on the Magnolia bridge, the bridge that used to cross the New Basin Canal at Magnolia Street. In the last 40 years, the focus has changed from being the toughest Indian on the street to being the prettiest Indian, the one with the most beautiful patches or the one who can sing best. This was not a random occurrence. Several chiefs, most notably Albert “Tootie” Montana of the downtown Yellow Pocahantas, began refocusing their efforts within their gangs and within the community at large to tamper down the fights and stabbings when Indian groups met. They did this via their standing among the Indians and the sheer artistry of their suits. Monk was one of Uptown Indians who pushed this. It’s not easy to tell this when two 250 pound Indians dressed in feathers, beads, and canvas weighing an additional 150 pounds are an inch away from each other screaming “I’m the Spy Boy for the Creole Wild West and I got the gang with Big Chief Howard….Coochie Ma!” and then, when it can’t get any more intense, the two Indians will break, hug, and admire each other’s suit. It’s pretty amazing that in such a macho, male-dominated milieu, the people who are most valued now are the ones who are the “prettiest,” but that’s another part of the mystique. For the amount of “playing Indian” that goes on now, there is almost no violence despite the intensity that has been there from the beginning. These warriors are still doing this as if their lives depend on it, and here on the street and in the souls of these Indians, it still does.
The rain is still holding off. Monk is now on Freret Street heading uptown. Most of the gang is a block ahead of him. He was looking a little tired before getting across Louisiana Avenue, but now he is getting his second wind. His voice is growing more powerful echoing off the dilapidated buildings and peeling paint on these streets he’s been running for most of his 71 years. I am right next to him filling in the chorus chants as he sings about the Mardi Gras days he has seen and the legendary Indians he has known. There’s tales about Old Black Johnny and the nameless Indian who buried the hatchet in the Big Chief’s head. Monk is improvising songs in a growing shamanic frenzy, his feathers swaying and darting as a visual counterpoint. Monk has said, “I can sing an Indian song all night long,” and I’m hearing him do it. It’s like listening to Homer describe the Trojan War of the Iliad and the Odyssey filtered through the Middle Passage, Congo Square, Black Hawk, and the back o’ town streets of Port Au Prince. Organized Western religion has generally eliminated the role of shaman from their tenets, and a person like myself who came up in such a religion doesn’t realize how important that shaman concept is until meeting one. Someone who can viscerally encompass the spirit world of the past and the ancestors and can connect it to the here and now is essential to our humanity and the questions we all have about it. The Native Americans with their pow-wows, spirit quests, and sun dances still understand. Haitian houngans and mambos with their veves, loa, and hounfors get it. And on Mardi Gras 2013, maybe the weather goddesses that control the rain are listening too.
The history of Mardi Gras Indians is a mysterious one. Some have traced their existence back to the 1700s where official records note the presence of Africans in the Crescent City in Native American attire. Monk told me, “I’ve been telling people this for years. You can go to Tulane or the Library of Congress. Friend of mine who is a college professor comes down every year. He saw in the newspaper that they had a bunch of black Indians in the 1700s.” Native Americans helped escaped slaves by hiding them in their settlements. There was inter-marriage/relations between the two groups as there was between all different ethnic groups in New Orleans. Their customs have been passed down mainly orally with some written documents. The tradition was very much underground and back of town even to the people who masked or followed it. Even today when the tradition is more open and high profile than ever, it still maintains a great degree of mystery and mystique. I have been exploring this tradition for twenty years, and the more I find out, the deeper and more fascinating it becomes. Where does the language, a patois that seems to be made up of Creole French, West African dialects, and the unique way of speaking in the Crescent City, come from? What does it mean? Where does the music come from? And why do the people who practice this Gulf Coast/Caribbean tradition mask as if they are Native Americans from the Great Plains? I’ve asked many Mardi Gras Indians and scholars these questions and more, and there are different answers for each, even when there are answers at all. I’m not a Mardi Gras Indian, and therefore may never find out what the truth is, even if there is a truth. The question for me continues to be “How can something so deep and fulfilling to both the people who practice it and those who follow and observe it be so musical, so funky, and so badass?” Maybe because it is…
We’ve now turned onto Valence Street where Monk lives, and Monk has the wide smile and joyous step of a returning warrior who has not only survived a Carnival Day on the New Orleans streets but has conquered them in familiar fashion. The tribe is in Monk’s yard or house taking their suits off or waiting for the barbeque that always ends the day for the Indians. Monk’s son Second Chief Joseph aka Booger is taking off his head piece. His daughter Second Queen Wynoka is placing her front patch on a table. His grandson and Spy Boy J’wan is unfastening his apron. Rhythm and blues/New Orleans culture expert Ice Cube Slim once pointed out to me that, unlike almost all the other tribes, the Golden Eagles, the people who are the real members of the gang sewing suits and such, are all kin to Monk. It really is a tribe, and when I hear Booger sing as he’s crossing Napoleon Avenue and stopping the Rex parade in its tracks one Mardi Gras morning, it’s obvious to me that being a Mardi Gras Indian is in his blood. It’s in his DNA and genetic code. Each Mardi Gras I have a memory of seeing J’wan when he was about 8 years old and 4 feet tall confronting another gang’s Spy Boy who was twice his height, 3 times his weight and 4 times his age. J’wan did the whole thing right from chanting, “I’m SpyBoy J’wan from the Golden Eagles with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. I don’t bow down don’t know how” and on and on until he stopped and stood his ground. What else could the rival Spy Boy do but look down and step aside with a wry yet appreciative look on his face and say, “Go on.” I knew then that he had it in him, and as I see him now 10 years or so later, it’s gotten stronger.
When the suit is off, Monk is usually a mellow guy. He has the understated confidence of a man whose wisdom has passed every test it has confronted. When he speaks, you listen. On Valence Street right now everybody is feeling pretty good, and Monk is making sure the chicken and other meat are grilling right. Monk is a great cook. I saw him make a dry roux one time that blew my mind, and I’ve tried all sorts of coon and chitlins in his yard. A bunch of the neighborhood crowd is coming around, Triple X and Flower and Larry and Yeti, Monk’s brothers. The crowd that shows up for the barbeques is always a killer cross section of folks from down Magnolia Street, Monk’s people who know him from the music scene, his family, and a couple people who heard about it from someone who heard about it who saw it on the Internet, or something like that.. He’ll often say, “I like everybody!” and his charisma in that way to attract a varied yet together, rowdy yet respectful crowd is one reason he’s the Big Chief. John Sinclair has been writing about Mardi Gras Indians for decades, and he’s called Monk, “a formidable singer, a powerful moral presence, and a fearless leader of men.” He is all that to me and more. Monk has a street level grace, serious history, sheer toughness, and unique creativity. Through these qualities, he has given to everyone who I can see right now and to anyone who has heard his music or seen him sing onstage a greater understanding of New Orleans and of the complex, deep, and sustaining spirituality that is the essence of the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. Or it’s simply a great friendship. Personally, that friendship has made me dig further inside and outside myself to see where my dedication and spirituality lie. I’m not sure how the other people around me see it, but it must mean something to them or they wouldn’t be here nor have run with him to 2nd and Dryades and back. And as I see him walk by with a deservedly satisfied look on his face, I realize that it still has not rained, and that it is not going to.