“I’m not going to tell you my secrets now,” warns Clarence “Chief Delco” Delcour of the Creole Osceola Mardi Gras Indian gang. “I come from the old school of it; I come from the old culture of it. My thing was basically not studying the chiefs today. I studied the chiefs that are gone away. That’s what I had to do for the culture.”
So don’t expect to find out what color Delcour’s suit will be when he comes out of his home in Vascoville, one of the Gentilly neighborhood’s three villages, on Carnival day.
On the other hand, Big Chief Roderick Sylvas of the Wild Tchoupitoulas doesn’t hesitate to say that he’ll emerge from the 45 Tchoup bar, at 4529 Tchoupitoulas, with yellow feathers tipped with green.
Each of the Black Indian tribes are unique in following their own traditions, rituals and even rules. Then again, there are many similarities between them. For instance both Chief Delco, 67, and Chief Roderick, 47—two generations of Indian chiefs—feel strongly about the importance of starting their Mardi Gras day in their own parts of town.
“That’s where you came from so you don’t forget it,” Delcour explains. “You do it for the neighborhood people.”
“That’s where the tribe was founded,” says Sylvas, who in 2001 reestablished the Wild Tchoupitoulas, which was established in 1968 and led by George “Big Chief Jolly” Landry. “I lived around the corner from Jolly and he was good friends with my uncle, Manuel Washington, who masked with him as well as with the Black Eagles. The neighborhood was glad to see the Wild Tchoupitoulas back on the street. “You used to have more people coming out and supporting you,” Sylvas laments. “A lot of that has changed because the demographics of the neighborhood have changed. A lot of the old people are also gone.”
When Delcour was growing up in Vascoville, there was only one Mardi Gras Indian in the area, the now notorious and somewhat mysterious Wildman Rock, who is said to have roamed dump sites in search of items for his suit. Since Delcour’s grandmother lived across the street from Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, his father and uncle would take him there to N. Villere Street and they would follow the gang.
At age 20, soon after Delcour returned from serving in Vietnam, he joined the Yellow Pocahontas holding the position of Trail Chief. “It kind of calmed me down,” he says of the therapeutic benefit of being involved with the Indians.
In the early 1970s, Delcour left the Yellow Pocahontas to form the Creole Osceola. “I could not sew like them—I didn’t look like them,” Delcour explains of the move. “I had my own way of sewing. Alfred Brown has been my designer for 40 years. I would dream it and he would draw it. He is my son’s parrain [godfather] who has designed my suits for the last seven years and draws for the whole tribe.”
After much contemplation, Chief Delco named his new gang the Creole Osceola in tribute to Chief Osceola, who led the Seminole tribe in Florida. “I needed a name that was meaningful if I’m showing respect to the Native Americans,” he explains. “What impressed me is that he married a slave woman and a lot of the Indians that ran with him were runaway slaves. The ‘Creole’ comes from my area, Vascoville—the 7th Ward.”
Delcour explains that the Indians’ use of the word gang, which some people who relate it to thugs find offensive, originated because a lot of the guys masking Indian labored on the riverfront. The groups who worked in certain areas with specific tasks were known as work gangs.
Chief Roderick’s style and journey into the Indian Nation differs significantly, though as youngsters both men followed the Indians. Sylvas’ mother wouldn’t allow him to join a gang, he explains, because at the time the Black Indians used to fight. Because of that and later due to financial considerations, Sylvas never masked Indian until he led the Wild Tchoupitoulas. It was then that he went to Big Chief Robert Johnson to teach him how to sew.
Sylvas points out that he and Chief Delco “sew differently,” with his suit representing the bead work style of the Uptown gangs and Delcour’s approach, which he describes as “flat three-dimensional,” being more in keeping with that of the Downtown Indians.
Chief Roderick, of course, revived a historic gang with immediate name recognition not only in his neighborhood but throughout the city and beyond particularly because of the 1976 album, Wild Tchoupitoulas. “A lot of people know the Wild Tchoupitoulas and they associate it with the Neville Brothers, the Meters and the 13th Ward,” says Sylvas. “It was just something in me,” he continues on his decision to finally mask. “I grew up looking at them.”
Sylvas’ Native American ancestry—he is a Choctaw from the Bayou Lacombe area—deepens his connection with the Black Indian Nation. “It’s all tied together,” he explains while disputing theories of the Mardi Gras Indians’ origin coming from the 1884 arrival in New Orleans of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
“This [the Mardi Gras Indian tradition] is based on symbolizing of what Native Americans would do or Africans do,” Chief Delco agrees. “We were under a costume of another race of people.”
“Chief Roderick has shown me that he loves the culture—he loves to sew, he loves to come out with something new all of the time and he talks to you in the manner of being a chief. His Native American heritage is stronger than mine and he knows a lot about it. His cousin protested with the Native Americans at Standing Rock [Sioux Reservation].”
Just as Chief Tootie Montana did with him when he joined the Yellow Pocahontas, Chief Delco sits down and talks to those interested in entering his gang to find out if they are really committed. “To be an Osceola you can’t come from another tribe—I don’t take no Indians from no other tribes,” he explains. “And if you leave my tribe, you can’t come back. I call it breaking feathers. You can’t do that with Delcour. I don’t think it’s fair to the Indians that you have. It [the rule] keeps confusion down. It’s important to me to keep confusion down. You’re supposed to have fun with this.”
Though there are no such limitations within the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Chief Roderick understands the concept. “He’s a traditional chief. He pretty much does things the way they did things when he first started masking. There are a lot of rules inside of his tribe that may not be in other tribes and vice-a-versa. So I understand why he doesn’t take in a member once they start off with a different tribe. When you take them in sometimes they’ll try to change the fabric of the way you do things and you have to retrain them.”
While some folks chatter about the younger Indians not keeping up the traditions or changing them too much, both Chiefs Delco and Roderick hold more positive attitudes.
“I love them because they’re sewing,” says Chief Delco, adding, “but you have to have a meaning behind what you’re sewing. There are a lot of good chiefs out here and there are some young chiefs who I’ve learned from because that’s the day and age. I’m never too old to learn about the culture. So I talk to them to see if there is any negativeness going on. They’re the same as I am. They’re in it for their community and they want to play the game. We are not real Indians, the thing about us is that we play Indian. So you have to know how to play it.”
“There are always some changes in the culture because anything that doesn’t change is pretty much dead,” Chief Roderick offers. “Everybody who masks is keeping up the tradition pretty much. There is always innovation. You have the Uptown Warriors and they come out with a tuba. That’s not really a traditional thing but it sounds good. And at one time, they didn’t have a bass drum so somebody brought a bass drum out on the street and it sounded good so everybody got a bass drum.”
These two chiefs from different neighborhoods and different generations are quick to agree on their favorite part of being a Mardi Gras Indian.
“The most fun is out there meeting another tribe in a respectful way,” says Chief Delco, who will lead the Creole Osceola, a seven-member gang, to the popular Black Indian meeting place on Orleans and Claiborne avenues. “It’s from the heart.”
“When we’re meeting the other tribes—singing the songs and dancing—that’s when I have the most fun,” Chief Roderick echoes. A sure stop for the Wild Tchoupitoulas, which includes the chief’s daughter, Little Queen Amari, is Second and Dryades Streets. “It takes a long time to get there from Tchoupitoulas. We have to cut through the parades and crowds and stop 100 times to take pictures,” he says, though the Chief surely isn’t complaining about his camera-wielding admirers.