While feathers and plumes are delicate, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians whose suits they adorn remain remarkably resilient. Though many members of the Indian gangs are scattered across the nation after Hurricane Katrina and homes, jobs, Indian suits and materials have been lost, the Mardi Gras Indians will be out on Carnival Day, continuing the approximately 150-year tradition with a mix of resolution and joyfulness.
“All it takes is one Indian on the corner and we’re going to survive,” Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters states with resolution. Bannock, who plans to meet other Uptown gangs around noon at Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street says, “All it takes is one Indian with a tambourine; he’ll draw a crowd.”
With similar determination, Big Chief Victor Harris, the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and leader of the Downtown gang the Mandingo Warriors declares, “You can look forward to Fi Yi Yi being out. This is something I’ve been doing all my life and just because of the fact that the storm came and washed us out somewhat, it doesn’t mean that the culture won’t survive. The spirit never dies. I am the spirit of Fi Yi Yi and I’m alive.”
These two veteran chiefs are very different in style of masking as well as in demeanor, and they hail from areas of town that are traditionally competitive. Yet they speak with one voice and for all those involved with the culture — chiefs, fellow Indians, percussionists, second liners and followers — of the love they have for the Indian tradition and the importance it plays in their lives.
The chant “Fi Yi Yi, Fi Yi Yi” unmistakably announces the arrival of Harris’ gang on the streets. The chief’s uniquely styled suits, which draw upon African rather than Native American influences, also make him and his tribe immediately identifiable. Despite having lost his home, several of his past suits and what he estimates as enough material and supplies to have generated Indian suits for the next 20 years, Harris is sewing and will hit the street with a new, purple, green and gold outfit on the holiday.
“It’s going to be like a miracle suit,” he declares, adding that he could easily have worn one of his old suits that are on display at the Backstreet Cultural Museum. “The rest of the guys might do that and I understand. The most important thing is being out there. But the spirit is always telling me what to do, and it’s telling me to make a new suit so that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t know whether it is going to be as grand, but I know it’s going to be one of my most inspirational suits.”
Celebrating his 40th anniversary masking as Indian, Harris, 55, has made a new suit for himself each year as well as creating costumes for family members and other Indians. He estimates that he has had a hand in building 100 Indian suits, and, proving that customs don’t die, the Big Chief is busy sewing suits for his daughter, grandson, granddaughter and his niece, Queen Kim. The granddaughter of the Backstreet Cultural Museum’s Sylvester Francis will also be masking with Fi Yi Yi totaling seven beaded and feathered Indians.
“The rest of the gang is the people,” Harris says with pride. “The tribe, my people, my followers, the second liners, those are my inspiration. That’s my gang as well. My drummers are here and that’s the main thing. I’m pleased and satisfied that my main people are here.”
On Carnival Day, Harris will step out at N. Robertson and Villere in the 7th Ward “That’s where we’re from so that’s where we’ll march,” he explains. “Even though it’s sort of a ghost town, we have to bring the spirit out of the ghost.” As has become a tradition, Fi Yi Yi will make a stop at the home of the late Allison “Tootie” Montana to pay tribute to the legendary Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas who passed away last year. From 1966 to 1984, Harris was a member of Montana’s gang, starting out as a brave and soon gaining his desired position as flagboy. In 1984, Harris was elected out of the Yellow Pocahontas, an event so devastating to him that almost 20 years later, the heartbreak of it remains in his eyes. Out of respect for Big Chief Tootie and the Yellow Pocahontas, Harris won’t offer details that led to the break.
Separated from the gang that meant so much to him, Harris describes how he prayed and cried himself to sleep that night in his dark and quiet house. The next day, however, he woke up feeling good and demonstrates how he stretched his arms and began chanting, “Eye, yi, yi” and then “fi yi yi” and then began screaming “fi yi yi.” “And it happened. That’s all I needed to say. I felt so inspired. It brought an identity to me and gave me a spiritual, cultural name,” Harris says.
The drums of African-influenced Fi Yi Yi will sound in Congo Square on Mardi Gras Day in an echo of the drumbeats of the gang’s ancestors. While the Indian gangs’ wild men often dash around into a crowd making a path for their chiefs, Harris is the only chief to aggressively interact with his audience. On his march, which includes a stop at a planned event at Hunter’s Field presented by the Tambourine & Fan organization, revelers — especially children — can expect him to run towards them in mock ferociousness to give them a little scare.
“You have to have a certain element of fear with you and keep it intense. It’s the action that counts and you have to perform,” explains the otherwise gentle mannered Harris. “It makes other people be part of it. People will say, ‘Oh, he came close to me.’ Everybody’s looking spooky and everybody’s looking crazy. It’s about all of us. It’s for all of the people.”
Fi Yi Yi will end the day at its “headquarters” at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where activities begin early with a 6 a.m. breakfast with the Skull & Bone Gang. From 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., radio station
WWOZ will broadcast live from the museum.
“Everybody is pretty much here,” says Big Chief Larry Bannock of his Gert Town gang the Golden Star Hunters. “The flagboy, spyboy, spy queen — enough people for the Indians and the second line, though you don’t have too many people in the community. Joe Caldwell [the Hunters’ strong vocalist] — he’s here. That’s who pretty much brought me into the Indian thing when I was a little boy back in ’56, ’57. He’d bring us around, marching and singing Indian songs. He’s been with me for 34 years.”
That’s when Bannock first joined the Golden Star Hunters and worked himself up through the ranks to the position of first spyboy that he held from 1973 until 1979 when he became chief. Though he was shot in 1983, had a heart attack in 1991 and suffered with and was operated on for cancer four years ago, Bannock never stopped masking. Katrina certainly wasn’t going to stop his show.
“By all rights, I shouldn’t even be masking,” he concedes. “My house is gone, everything is gone.
[Masking Indian] is the only thing we have to relieve the tension and stress. We’re not costing nobody no money. Anything we’re putting out is out of our pockets. We’re not going to get any money from the city, from the state, from nobody. I might be crazy but I’m a crazy Mardi Gras Indian. We’ve done been to hell and back. This is our way of venting. It’s something that nobody can take from us.”
When Bannock evacuated to Baton Rouge, he left with a prayer and two suits stored in travel cases in his over 100-year-old home. One was last year’s pink extravaganza that he had ready to take with him for a scheduled September performance at the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Monroe. His house flooded, but the suits were stored high enough that they didn’t get wet. Another suit that was on display at Kenner’s Mardi Gras Museum is also said to have survived.
“A real Mardi Gras Indian always has an ace in the hole,” says the Big Chief, who plans to don his 2005 suit augmented with new pieces. “Everybody figures to wear what they’ve got. You can’t parade the way you want to anyway because of the trash in streets. Washington Avenue is really tore up.”
Though many Indians will make due this year, Bannock doesn’t see the Indians’ suits returning to simpler, less expensive designs of yesteryear despite the loses from the storm. He’s confident that the Indians will continue to create the elaborate, feathered, plumed, beaded and jeweled suits folks have come to know and admire.
“If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch,” he retorts. “We’re getting ready now for ’07. That’s when we’ll really come back. The hurricane set us back, but it didn’t kill us.”
While allowing that nobody ever knows which Indians will actually show up on Mardi Gras until they do, the Big Chief predicts that seven or eight gangs from Uptown will hit the street including the Golden Eagles, Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West and Golden Blade. He’s heard Downtown tribes such as the Ninth Ward Hunters, Comanche Hunters, and Red Hawk Hunters will also be out.
“This is our way of surviving,” Bannock says. “This is what we love. We don’t come and go. We are Mardi Gras Indians until the last one. I live Mardi Gras Indians 365 days a year. My Indian suit and this culture is all I have.”
“That morning will tell the story,” Big Chief Victor Harris offers. “Mardi Gras is going to be as strong as ever. It’s going to be more unified. That’s the thing that people are not understanding. It may not be as many [Indians] as we are looking for and be like the way things were. The way things are now, that’s the way things are going to be and we will have a great time. And if people just think about having a great time, that’s what I come to provide.”
“We need this Mardi Gras more than ever,” Big Chief Bannock declares. “It’s like the Marine Corps: ‘All it takes is a few good men.’ All it takes is a few people who are devoted and love the culture and we will survive. Maybe the numbers are small to some but how many people are going to wake up Feb. 28 with a tear in their eye and wish they were home?”
Fans of Mardi Gras Indians who miss them on Fat Tuesday can usually see them on the St. Joseph’s Day and Super Sunday parades. These events have grown in importance as they provide opportunities for gangs to parade together, but the St. Joseph’s Day parade is following a new route this year because trailers now fill the historical A.L. Davis Park, the parade’s traditional destination. This year, the Indians will start the St. Joseph’s Day procession on the street at Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street. Instead of making a circular route as has been its custom in recent years, the 2006 parade will head downtown and disband in Armstrong Park. The parade begins at 1 p.m.
“We are definitely planning to have our St. Joseph’s night festival,” says Mardi Gras Indian Council head Bertrand Butler of this year’s March 19th activities. Butler and several Mardi Gras Indians plan to meet with the new police captain of the 6th District, Captain John Bryson, to ask for the department’s support and cooperation during the event after last year’s ended with confrontations between the police and the Indian gangs. The goal, says Bertrand, is for a peaceful night. On June 27, 2005, a City Council meeting was held to discuss the altercations with police that took place on St. Joseph’s night. While Big Chief Tootie Montana was speaking about the issue from the podium, he collapsed and died. Another meeting was never rescheduled and problems and solutions have yet to be addressed.
Jerome Smith, who heads the youth-oriented Tambourine & Fan organization, says that its annual Super Sunday will take place as well. “I’m going to bring the children in for that from all different cities,” he declares with determination. At press time, no date has been set for the procession that traditionally begins at Bayou St. John and ends at Hunter’s Field.