The scene at the Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School when the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame first presented its awards almost 20 years ago was a sweet, significant ceremony attended primarily by the school’s young students. Co-founded by teacher Cherice “Queen Reesie” Harrison-Nelson and principal Roslyn Smith, its purpose was to pay tribute to Harrison-Nelson’s father, the then–recently deceased Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. and others who had contributed to the Black Indian Nation, as well as to educate the children about the tradition.
On Sunday, August 13, the 19th Annual Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Induction, Awards & Memorial Ceremony takes place at 3 p.m. at the Ashe Cultural Center before a much larger and more diverse, though probably no less enthusiastic, audience than that of the schoolyard filled with kids.
This year, the highly prestigious Donald Harrison Sr. Chrystal Feather Award, a beautifully delicate glass trophy, will be presented to Big Chief Keith “Keitoe” Jones of the Seminoles Mardi Gras Indian gang. The chief began masking Indian in 1974 with the Ninth Ward Hunters under the leadership of Big Chief Rudy Bougere. It was watching his brother Johnny sew that initially sparked Keitoe’s interest in the Black Indian culture. “I liked it and I wanted to get involved with what was going on,” he said in a 2012 interview. When Keitoe joined the White Eagles in 1977, Chief Felton Brown became his mentor. “He would teach me to lay my beads down flat,” Jones, the son of the late blues singer Little Sonny Jones, remembered, adding that his sister Linda and brother Darryl were both in the gang.
Jones held the spyboy position in most of the tribes he ran with, including the Creole Wild West and the Golden Sioux. He moved to gang flag when he joined the Seminoles, led by another legendary chief and artist, Joe Pete. “He taught me how to decorate and stick a crown and do wings,” recalled Chief Keitoe, who took over the Seminoles in 1992, after the passing of Chief Joe Pete.
Big Queen Kim Boutte, who began masking as Little Queen with her cousin, Victor Harris the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, will be receiving the Queen’s Choice award, another highly coveted honor. The Capturing the Spirit honor goes to Royce Osborn, the producer of the outstanding documentary All on a Mardi Gras Day.
The annual occasion is free and open to the public and includes presentations to all of the inductees into the Hall of Fame, the solemn release of homing doves by Chief Clarence Delcour in remembrance of the Black Indians who have passed and a joyful celebration of the culture’s spirit and longevity.