Robert Nathaniel Lee, renowned as Big Chief Robbe, tells of his lifelong journey in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition as carefully as author Al Kennedy does in capturing it in Chief of Chiefs. Robbe, who sewed his first suit in 1929 as a member of the Creole Wild West, makes a point of differentiating between events that he experienced or heard about firsthand from reliable sources, which were many, and tales and dates that he makes sure to say he can’t confirm. In other words, Big Chief Robbe was a man of integrity who brought his solid values to his work ethic and daily life, and to his involvement in the Black Indian Nation.
Because of Robbe’s deep respect and admiration for his mentor, Big Chief Brother Tillman, Chief of Chiefs could almost be considered his oral biography about the legendary Mardi Gras Indian who was vital in the culture beginning in the 1920s. Through Robbe’s words, readers are privileged to follow both lives simultaneously from the time, as a young boy, Robbe would seek out the powerful Tillman just to hear him speak and watch him sew until, due to age and illness, Robbe’s Big Chief of the Creole Wild West was forced to give up the streets. It was thought that Robbe would take over the gang, in which he then held the position of spy boy, however, Brother Tillman had one request: “Baby boy, don’t take my name.” Of course, Robbe respectfully honored his entreaty.
For one year, Robbe stood as the Big Chief of the Golden Blades, after which he and his many followers formed the White Eagles. Interestingly, the name was inspired by a 1932 movie, White Eagle. Chief Robbe, who donned his last suit in 1962, went on to “pull” two other gangs, the Ninth Ward Hunters and the Golden Arrows.
Those and many other, little-known facts are revealed in Kennedy’s numerous conversations with Robbe. For instance, the introduction of the “falling crown,” a headdress on which the feathers move, came about when a man named Isidore Clark brought back from Oklahoma a crown made by Native Americans. Tillman and other Black Indians disassembled it to see how it was constructed and then reassembled it again. Since that time, falling crowns, which “open and close,” have been regularly created and worn by the Mardi Gras Indians.
Robbe was skilled at working with a needle and thread sewing and beading his suits, though admits he wasn’t good at drawing. He explains that using the money he saved from the many jobs he did in his Uptown neighborhood, he would buy comic and coloring books to trace the images of Native Americans to use on his suits. Following in the footsteps of Tillman, Robbe remained a traditionalist reserving his respect for those Mardi Gras Indians who constructed their entire suits from crown to shoes. Like his mentor, he also didn’t approve of those who, after use, would sell their suits. “Brother Tillman never would sell anything he had—I don’t care how broke he was,” Robbe remembers. “Before he’d sell it, he’d tear it up because he didn’t want the other fellows to get ahold of it.”
Back in the day when neighborhood butcher shops were plentiful, the Indians would stop in to collect turkey feathers to adorn their suits. White feathers were particularly sought as they were best for dying. Ostrich plumes became popular in more recent times, though Robbe was always firmly against their use. “The first Indians had never saw an ostrich, so they couldn’t wear plumes,” he says. “Every feather that the native Indian wore was off a bird that could fly. Nobody ever saw an ostrich flying…”
To further the conversation, Kennedy turned to several other, now deceased Black Indians, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame and Isaac “Mr. Ike” Edward, both of whom knew Big Chief Robbe during the times he masked Indian as well as the era in which he lived. The quotes from Harrison come primarily from the author’s equally important book, Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians. Edward, who died in 2017, came up under Big Chief Brother Tillman, followed Robbe into the Golden Blades and helped him and Lawrence Fletcher establish the White Eagles.
One doesn’t necessarily need to be a follower of the Black Indians to fully appreciate the worth of Chief of Chiefs. It stands solidly as a fascinating history of New Orleans from the perspective of a black man fully engaged in its culture and the day-to-day struggle to hustle (often back-breaking, jobs) while dealing with racial antagonism and often hostile police.
Big Chief Robbe, who was born on May 21, 1915, began losing his sight at age 62, a condition his sister blamed on sewing in dim light. On St. Joseph’s Night in 1962, he donned an Indian suit for the last time to lead an estimated four or five gangs from Uptown to Downtown—an unprecedented event.
The Chief of Chiefs, as declared by the Mardi Gras Indian Council, passed away on January 19, 2001.