Mardi Gras coming and it won’t be long!!!
Dead Man walking gonna sing his song.
I don’t wear no feathers. I ain’t got no crown.
I’m Big Chief Bone Man from the hole in the ground…
—Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes
All across New Orleans, from the barrooms of Mid-City to the back rooms of the Lower Ninth Ward, preparations for some of the most colorful Mardi Gras traditions have been underway for months. Though the institutions of the Mardi Gras Indians, Skull & Bones gangs and the Baby Dolls have been steeped in generations of practice, a new wave of New Orleanians who were not born here but have moved to the city over the last three decades have added additional layers of cultural identity to the concept of Mardi Gras masking. Whether they were born to it or drawn to it, though, the maskers and merrymakers of Mardi Gras bring everything they have to bear on this wonderful tradition.
The Mardi Gras Indians, groups of African-American men (and more recently, women) masking as Native Americans, date back to the nineteenth century. They mask in Native American “suits” with elaborate beaded designs in honor of the indigenous people of Louisiana who offered help to escaped African slaves. The gangs come from all parts of the city and parade through their neighborhoods on Mardi Gras day, singing and chanting as they walk their routes and interact with other Mardi Gras Indian gangs and the general public. A good place to find Mardi Gras Indians on Fat Tuesday is the corner of Second and Dryades, where many of the gangs stop before returning to the home of the Big Chief for closing ceremonies. Laurita Dollis, Big Queen of the Wild Magnolias, raised her son Gerard “Little Bo” Dollis in the tradition alongside her husband, Big Chief Bo Dollis. Now Laurita is helping to prepare Gerard’s daughter, her 2-year-old grandchild Acerria, for a lifetime as a Mardi Gras Indian.
The Skull & Bones gangs wear death masks, ghoulish black skeleton costumes and butcher aprons emblazed with warnings like “You Next” and “The End Is Near,” and carry bloody, nasty, raw bones for emphasis. They knock on the doors of Treme at dawn on Mardi Gras Day to wake people up and remind them of their ultimate fate. Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Big Chief of the North Side Skull & Bones gang, offers some insight into what to expect and what not to expect from these bonesmen. The two most likely places to run into them are in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum early on Mardi Gras morning and the Mother-in-Law Lounge at the end of the day.
Musician Margie Perez moved to New Orleans in 2004. Her family roots in Cuba prepared her for the Caribbean culture that sustains New Orleans, and she quickly became an integral part of the music scene and several cultural institutions.
Perez has found her Mardi Gras mojo as part of the Red Beans and Rice krewe, which gathers in the Marigny on Lundi Gras, close to her home in the Musicians’ Village. But her most important connection to Carnival begins when the parades end and her recycling-conscious organization, the Arc, begins rescuing beads from their destiny as trash and redistributing them to future Mardi Gras organizations.
Tee-Eva, born Eva Louis Perry in St. John the Baptist Parish, greets a steady stream of customers at Tee-Eva’s Old Fashioned Pies and Pralines. At 81 and retired since 2000, Tee-Eva watches as her granddaughter and niece run the 22-year-old business, now located at 5201 Magazine Street, eight blocks upriver from its original location.
Despite her loss of that artistically adorned address—along with all personal mementos—during Katrina, the cozy corner store’s walls are covered in tributes and photos documenting Tee-Eva’s decades of success as a culinary entrepreneur and her passion for being a beautiful Baby Doll.
Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes
(North Side Skull & Bones Gang)
“I get up early on Mardi Gras day. I’m up at three-thirty a.m. I start up from my house. I go out to the spirits in the cemetery. I call the spirits home and I take them with me on Mardi Gras day. That’s probably what I concentrate on when I go out the door at Carnival. I keep in mind the family spirits, let them have their walk. When I meet the rest of the gang we sing songs to call the spirits together and we go out the door in one spirit, one mindset. There’s usually some people waiting for us. So about five-thirty, six o’clock, I’m out the door. When we come out we sing and we dance and we knock on the doors as well and greet the new Carnival season, greet the world.
We are still scary. We represent part of that thing that people remember so we do scare some of them.
I got involved with the gang through Albert Morris, who was my Big Chief. He invited me, asked me if I wanted to join the gang with him. I told him I’d think about it. I’d been invited to be a Mardi Gras Indian many times by very good friends but it didn’t seem like it was exactly my thing. I knew people like Donald Harrison Sr., Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, the Cheyennes, other Indians, but it wasn’t my thing for whatever reason.
The Skull & Bone gang was more what I wanted to do. I joined in 2000. The only Big Chief I’ve known is Al. Big Arthur Regis passed away before I had a chance to meet him. His son is here somewhere in the city. I’ve met some older skeletons who were masking back to the 1930s. A few guys like James Andrews Sr., “Big 12.” Tootie Montana masked as a skeleton, I don’t think he was in the North Side, but he may have been. It was the only big gang downtown that’s been consistent. There’s not that many gangs from that era. There’s people that mask in skeleton suits now. The Redbone Skull & Bone gang, they were masking. There were some uptown, some downtown. I don’t know of any specific rivalries but that’s what happens on the streets of the city. You never know. My approach is we’re not Indians. We’re a Skull & Bone gang.
The songs I sing are the ones I created. We use ’em all for the North Side Skull & Bone gang and we might pass them on. They’re songs like ‘Too Late,’ songs about what speeds you to the ultimate demise. What gets you in the ground the fastest. Look at all the gun violence that’s going on right now, in the city and around the world. There were 162 deaths from guns last year in New Orleans. In other cities one or two deaths might be big news but in New Orleans it happens all the time.
We were down to three members in 2005. That was one of the things that I wanted to do when I got with Al was to build it back up. At one point it was just the two of us, Al and I. Now it’s up to about 10. It might be more. It does fluctuate. People ask me to join all the time but we don’t take everybody. It’s been an African-American male tradition. The gang that I’m in that’s what it’s always been. So I try to leave it as it has been, it’s confusing to young folks but I’m just trying to leave it as it was given to me. If everyone who wanted to do it was part of it there’d probably be a thousand. But I just try to do it in the tradition that was passed along. Of course it’s Carnival; you can do anything you want to with masking, that’s what I believe. That’s the whole idea of masking at Carnival. You can be anything you want to other than your natural self. When people don’t like how it’s done then they go and start one themselves. Do it yourself. That’s the beauty of it.
Skeletons and Mardi Gras Indians, they might meet each other and they might roll together on carnival day because they’re in the same neighborhood. We’re only led by the spirit of the day. We don’t have a route. We roam randomly through the streets. I can say we start in the Sixth Ward right there where the old Blandin funeral home is, that’s the Backstreet Cultural Museum now. But when we come out the door we’re going to go in whatever direction the spirit leads us to go. There are some gangs that I’m tight with like Fi Ya Ya, Donald Harrison Jr., his gang. As for Baby Dolls, that started with me meetin’ Baby Dolls back in 2002 with Antoinette K-Doe, back then every year we would meet down by the Mother-in-Law Lounge. We’d be passing by there and then before you knew it we were walking with the Baby Dolls. So we’d take a stroll up the Avenue to the Claiborne overpass with the Baby Dolls and it became something that people enjoyed I guess. The people will let you know if you’re doing it right. And they’ll sure let you know if you’re doin’ it wrong. So we have fun with that part of it for sure. That’s generally later on in the afternoon.
But we wake up people on Mardi Gras morning. We wake ’em up out of bed! That’s part of it. We make so much noise that people get p-d off and mad but it is Carnival Day. I got my fingers crossed about the weather. I’m looking forward to it and I always get up for it. Get them suits and aprons together and I’ll be ready.”
Laurita Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
(Mardi Gras Indians)
“I’m not from a Mardi Gras Indian family. The only member of my family who was really into Mardi Gras was my grandfather Harold Dejean, who was the leader of the Olympia Brass Band, so I do come from a musical family. My grandfather raised me. He bought me a clarinet when I was in elementary school. I was in the school band. So I always had music around me. Then band members would come over to our house and practice there. When I was a little girl his whole band would be in the front room practicing. On Sunday evenings my grandfather would play at Preservation Hall and he’d take me along and I’d sit there and listen to the band.
Bo was my introduction to the Mardi Gras Indians. Back in 1976 I was working at Maison Blanche on Canal Street. A co-worker of mine told me about Indian practice. I didn’t know what that was and he was trying to explain it to me. So I mentioned it to a girl friend of mine and she said ‘Let’s go see what it’s all about.’
So we pulled up in front of the H&R, which was next to where Handa Wanda is now, and there were so many people we didn’t go in. But we went back to Second and Dryades the day after Mardi Gras, went to Sportsman’s Corner and Bo and a friend of his was in there. My co-worker was in there and he introduced me to Bo. We were socializing and I think he kind of liked me. He walked me to my car and he said ‘You remember my name?’ and I said ‘Yes, Bo Diddley.’ He said ‘No, Bo Dollis.’ It seemed like he was upset about it. From there he kind of introduced me to Indian culture and what it was all about.
I had the completely wrong idea about Indian culture. Bo taught me the spiritual side of it. We had our son, Gerard, and he started masking when he was six years old in 1988. I started to mask Indian in 1990. Even before Gerard started masking we had a truck and he was with me in the truck, and we used to follow Bo like that. When Gerard started to mask I still drove the truck. I wanted to only mask for one year, just to experience how it feels to wear an Indian suit. I always helped them all those years to make their Indian suits—I wanted to make one for myself. When I put it on that year it was so spiritually overwhelming that I’ve never stopped since then. I started getting other women to join the Wild Magnolias and it grew since then. I’ve got seven Queens this year. We have signal practice, we do that on Sundays, we have sewing practice which we do at my house, and we enjoy teaching the songs and what they need to be knowing on Mardi Gras day when they’re on the street with their Indian suits.
Acerria will be three on February 26. This will be her third year. She don’t come out on St. Joseph’s night but she do come out on Mardi Gras day and on Super Sunday. Her dad, Little Bo (Gerard) makes her costume. She likes to sew. She’ll take a needle and some beads and a canvas board, and she’ll sit there with her dad and don’t stick herself and she’ll do exactly what she sees him doing. I didn’t realize it until I had a grandchild, but culture runs through the bloodline. Just to see her sit there for that amount of time and put that needle through that canvas board, putting those little bitty beads on the needle and then run it through the canvas, it’s amazing.
She’ll walk some and we have a wagon that we decorate for her. We can’t carry her because our Indian suits will scratch her. It’s definitely in her. She remembers her grandpa, Big Chief Bo Dollis. She looks at his picture and says, ‘Where’s pawpaw?’ It’s in her bloodline.
On Mardi Gras day we plan to get up at six o’clock. The whole gang is gonna come over to my house and have breakfast together. We’re going to pray together before we go out on the street, our ritual morning prayer, which is not ‘Indian Red,’ just a prayer to ask God to watch over us while we’re in the street, to protect us and to bring us all back home safe. We plan on leaving the house at eight o’clock and we’ll be at Sportsman’s Bar at Second and Dryades by nine o’clock. That’s our first stop.
This year is a tribute to Big Chief Bo Dollis. He died January 20. I buried him January 30. Right after was Mardi Gras. We masked, but it was a hard year to mask. So what we’re doing is the Wild Magnolia gang, we’re all wearing black, as a tribute to him, and everybody that’s with the Wild Magnolias is wearing some part of him on their Indian suit.
Acerria is totally aware of Bo Dollis. I don’t think she’s aware that he’s not with us. I think she just thinks he’s not here, that he’s at the hospital maybe, or that he just hasn’t come home yet. When he first died she used to go to the room that he used to sleep in and she’d ask for him. Now she looks at his pictures but she’s not going into that room looking for him.
Years from now she can look back on this and say, ‘Oh, this is what I did!’ Her dad, Little Bo, was always around Indians because of his dad. He started masking when he was six years old, but she’s involved even younger than that. And she’s able to handle it, that’s why I’m saying it’s embedded in her, because when she be around Indians she don’t cry. When she’s out among the crowd on Mardi Gras and Super Sunday she don’t cry. When the music starts playing she starts dancing. No fear of it at all. It’s in her soul and she’s going to grow up with that.
Even if she grow up and don’t put on an Indian suit, don’t do what we doing, it’s still a comfort to me because she has a legacy she can look back on. What her grandfather was about, and the man that he was, that’s embedded in her. It fills me to see the things that she do, the things that she say, the facial expressions that remind me of Big Bo. She did something last night with her face that me and Little Bo just started laughing because it looked so much like him. Her eyes, and the way she twists her mouth. It’s him.
We truly miss Big Bo. It’s been hard these holidays but we try to get through it and it’s gonna be a beautiful Mardi Gras in his honor. He truly truly loved his grandbaby, Acerria Angel Dollis, and it just makes me so happy that he was able to see her and spend two years with her before he passed.”
(Krewe of Red Beans and Rice)
“My first Mardi Gras was in 2005. It was an active day following Zulu, crossing Canal during the Rex parade, down to Frenchmen, then over to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. It was so magical there at the end of the day. The sun was setting. Victor Harris, the Chief of Fi Yi Yi, he was the last Indian there. There were barely any more people at Backstreet. My friend was really tall and he was wearing a full clown suit with a rainbow wig and he was carrying a trombone. Victor looked over and said ‘Blow man, blow!’ We followed Victor to his house and he served us all hot dogs.
I have masked as a Baby Doll and it was a wonderful privilege to be invited to do it. It takes a lot of time. I did it for three years before I hung up my parasol two Mardi Gras ago.
I’m part of the Red Beans krewe and on Lundi Gras we all have our annual parade. This is our eighth year. We use red beans and rice on our suits. We start on Lundi Gras in front of Mardi Gras Zone at Port and Royal at two o’clock. We stop at Buffa’s and the Candlelight and we end at the Backstreet Museum. The Treme Brass Band is always our band and Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson is our grand marshal for life. A few years ago Camellia Brand found out about us and asked to sponsor us so all our beans are sponsored by Camellia Brand. Instead of sewing our costumes like the Mardi Gras Indians we use glue guns. Last year there was a sub theme: Follow the Yellow Bean Road. I was Dorothy. I used red beans with glitter, glittered up my shoes and used a little stuffed animal to be my Toto.
I see a whole different side of Mardi Gras day. I love the parades, the marching bands, the krewes. But the waste of the plastic is terrible. I work for the Arc. We collect beads, sort them throughout the year, then sell them to people riding in parades the following year. I watch the parades but I don’t fight with grandma for the beads. She can catch them and then donate them to the Arc afterwards. We provide a place where people can donate the beads year round.”
“I grew up on a plantation until I was eight years old. The sugar cane, the pecan trees in our front yard, that’s what inspired me to do pralines. That was everyday candy for us as children.
After my kids grew up, my marriage of 25 years was getting shabby and I decided to move on and make a better life for myself. When I was living in California, I placed a one-page advertisement in the Valley Times, saying, ‘Creole and Cajun Foods, From My Kitchen to Yours.’ My phone started ringing the next day and hasn’t stopped ringing ever since.
I’m part of the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls. We’re all professional ladies, each successful with our own business. Miss Antoinette [K-Doe’s widow] started it as a way to keep Ernie alive. We march downtown. We meet up at Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge then head to the Backstreet Museum and then meet the Zulu at Orleans and Claiborne and follow them up to their place on Broad Street.
When we started out in 2005, we had 25 Baby Dolls. Before we started up, you couldn’t find a Baby Doll anywhere in the city! It had really died out. But now you see Baby Dolls in every neighborhood in town; everybody wants to be a Baby Doll, they’re starting to come out of the woodwork.
Miss Miriam Batiste taught us how to be Baby Dolls. She’d sit up with us and tell us how to design the dresses and about the history going all way back to the 1700s. Miss Miriam told us how she and her sister would be lonely at home on Mardi Gras day, closed up in the house while everyone was out having fun. They wanted something to do so they started making outfits and becoming Baby Dolls. They came out with their little brother, [the late “Uncle”] Lionel Batiste. He was a Baby Doll, too!
The Baby Doll tradition goes way back before our time. Miss Miriam told us they were companions to the Bone Man [predecessor to today’s Skull & Bones Gangs]. See, the Indians, they have people around them. The Big Chief, he has his spyboy. He’s got his Wild Man. He’s a got a Queen. But the Bone Man, he’s a lone person, out there all by himself. Miss Miriam said she thought it’d be nice if we would be companions now, so we go up and meet Sunpie [Bruce Barnes, leader of North Side Skull & Bones] on Mardi Gras morning.
I don’t know how it all has been labeled from back in the years, but I do know that we do what our parents do. I have three generations of Baby Dolls. It’s a feeling that gets down in your soul, like music.
The Baby Dolls, we like to get together and have a good time. Here come the Baby Dolls! Here comes the music and you go out and have fun. It’s fun being a Baby Doll.”