When Victor Harris came out in his beautiful new red suit on Carnival Day 2018, it marked his 53rd year masking Indian, the most in the history of the Mardi Gras Indians. He made his way to the porch of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where he spoke of freedom, peace and unity. Soon thereafter, Harris, the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Chief of the Mandingo Warriors stepped into the street and met Chief Donald Harrison Jr. of the Congo Square Nation. Their face-to-face, feather-to-bead, emotion-filled encounter demonstrated the sense of love and respect among the members of the Black Indian Nation. This warm, familiar image of the highly regarded Harris is a far cry from the man who is initially, through his own words, introduced in Fire in the Hole, a collaborative visual ethnography made in cooperation with the Neighborhood Story Project and published by the University of New Orleans Press.
In the chapter titled “The Pain of Change,” the reader meets Harris as an angry man who in 1984 had just been ousted, along with his longtime friend and assistant, Collins “Coach” Lewis, from the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian gang. He had been “running” flagboy with the tribe then led by Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, since 1965. Later, Harris explains the cause of this devastating split. “Man, I was out of it,” Harris admits. “Revenge is all I wanted.”
The story of Harris’ transition and subsequent spiritual and literally physical awakening is laid out as if a conversation. Coach, a talented sewer who got his nickname working with the football team at Hunter’s Field and who passed away in 2011, and Harris, who was also a regular at the Field, share their remembrances. Their words and quotes from others, including the Backstreet’s Sylvester Francis, flow throughout the book naturally as if everyone is in the same room at the same time. Harris’ depiction of himself back in 1984 carrying a machete and shield with an aim to do harm to those who he felt betrayed him could be acknowledged as a daring way to begin the tale of Fi Yi Yi. Yet this book is about truth and both the brotherhood and conflict among the Indians and their extended community.
Beyond Coach, who was deemed the Commissioner of the Chief’s Sewing Table and the Ambassador of the Mandingo Warriors, we hear from others who have been vital in helping Harris attain his position as an innovative and important Chief. Some, like master designer Jack Robinson, have worked ceaselessly behind the scene in creating Fi Yi Yi’s unique, African-inspired suits. A large man with a big heart, Harris makes a huge impression, as captured by the many spectacular photographs by the gang’s official photographer, Jeffrey David Ehrenreich. Fi Yi Yi loomed as a ferocious chief as he’d crisscross a street engaging the crowd and always paying special attention to the children who would be frightened and laughing at the same time. Through his work with Jerome Smith’s organization, the Tambourine and Fan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a conduit for many young boys and girls who would go on to become musicians and members of social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indians, Harris was always active in steering kids in the right direction.
Central to this book are all of the connections between the main characters, many of whom have known each other most of their lives. For instance, Big Queen Kim Boutte of Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors is Harris’ niece and is the cousin of Jerome Smith. As a resident of the 7th Ward, she used to follow the Yellow Pocahontas when Harris was a member and, as a child, hit the streets with Tambourine and Fan.
Neighborhood plays an equally important part in the goings on and the support that was essential to Fi Yi Yi, particularly in his early years as a Chief. He became the impetus for the creation of the Backstreet Cultural Museum when Francis, the founder of the now-renowned institution on Henriette Delille Street, helped Harris out in 1990 when the Chief was running late. “I don’t know how to sew,” Francis admits. “I didn’t know how not to push the needle too hard.”
Francis continues the story explaining that he went to Harris’ house after all the Indian events—Carnival, St. Joseph’s night, Super Sunday—were over. “Just like all the rest of the years, the blue suit was thrown in the yard with a little dog back there just wagging his tale.” He spotted the piece he had helped sew and asked Harris if he could have it. Francis hung it in his garage, a place where some neighborhood Indians would often go to shoot pool and they, of course, spotted it. “I started begging Vic for more pieces. That’s how I started my museum,” he adds.
“He’s the caretaker. He preserves all the culture and history of the inner city,” says Harris, who, of course, was the first to bring his suits to the “official” Backstreet Cultural Museum when it moved into the former Blandin Funeral Home, which was made available to Francis by Joan Rhodes. Many of Fi Yi Yi’s suits are prominently displayed in the room dedicated to Mardi Gras Indians.
There is a certain poetry to the spoken word that offers a further glimpse into the personality of the speakers and what’s important to them. The interviews compiled for Fire in the Hole resemble in rhythm and expression that of griots telling their stories to a next generation. Those stories are also told in the magnificent suits created by Fi Yi Yi and those toiling with bloody fingers at the “sewing table” hour after hour, year after year.
Those tales of work and sacrifice become reality in 12 chapters of the book that stunningly capture portraits of Fi Yi Yi in suits he wore each year for Mardi Gras from 2006 through 2017. Each section also opens with detailed close-ups of the bead work and action shots with the Chief and his gang among the people and other Black Indian gangs on the streets. Each year boasts a different color though the African and spiritual essence of Fi Yi Yi remains constant.
In the tradition, Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors will hit the streets on St. Joseph’s night, Monday, March 19, 2018, which happens to fall on the day after the Mardi Gras Indian Council’s Uptown Indian Super Sunday. The Chief will step out during the early evening—probably around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.—of the house in the 1400 block of Annette Street as he did long ago. Though he will roam to meet other gangs, his first stop will be at the Backstreet Cultural Museum to sign books and celebrate the publication of Fire in the Hole.
People often say that when one door closes, another one opens. The story of the awakening of Fi Yi Yi came as a shout and a vision that transformed Victor Harris into what he always was and will be.
“Victor always was a man who followed himself,” Francis proclaims.
“Who they talk about?” goes the chant that fills the streets on the Chief’s arrival. “Fi Yi Yi!” is the immediate gleeful reply.