As improbable as it might seem, the most significant date for the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians apart from Carnival is March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. Come sundown on the Italian saint’s holiday, the Mardi Gras Indians once again don their splendid feathered and beaded suits, taking to the streets to meet other “gangs.”
In recent years, much of the Black Indian activity on St. Joseph’s night has centered in the Uptown area, specifically near A.L. Davis Park, Washington Avenue and Second and Dryades streets. Indian gangs from all over town often would eventually make their way there. The location will, of course, remain a major gathering place for the Indians on the holiday.
However, Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe remembers a time when Downtown was alive with Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s night. “What happened is that Downtown started focusing on Uptown,” explains the chief, who is eager to change that. “So what I decided to do is to stay in my neighborhood. My main focus has been keeping our neighborhood alive.”
In the last two or three years, Montana has helped energize the Downtown Indian scene on St. Joseph’s. He says that last year there were more Black Indian gangs on the Downtown streets to celebrate the holiday than he’s ever seen. In respect for his father, the late Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, Allison “Tootie” Montana and his wife Joyce, most of the tribes came by the family home in the 1600 block of North Villere Street. It is where Chief Darryl starts his night, which usually begins around 6 pm.
The gangs wielding their tambourines in front of the house last year included the Wild Apache, Young Generation, Black Feather, Monogram Hunters, Black Foot, Ninth Ward Hunters and the 7th Ward Creole Hunters.
“It took hours to get out of the block,” Montana remembers. After traveling the streets via undetermined routes, the Yellow Pocahontas’ and other gangs’ destination was to head into the nearby Treme neighborhood and land at Tuba Fats Square. Awaiting them at the lot on North Robertson Street adjacent to the Candle Light Lounge were food and drinks provided by the Treme Consortium and several other organizations. The Yellow Pocahontas will head in that direction again this St. Joseph’s night, meeting other Indians along the way.
St. Joseph’s night holds a magical aura, as the Indians’ crown feathers blow seductively and decorative gemstones on their suits glow under the moonlight and streetlights. Montana says that sometimes St. Joseph’s night almost seems better than Mardi Gras. “You’re not physically exhausted from sewing—you’re well rested,” he explains. Montana adds that he also finds there are more Indian followers out for the March holiday as they’re not busy watching the Zulu and other Mardi Gras parades. “Once St. Joseph’s night comes, everybody’s looking for the Indians.”
Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows describes St. Joseph’s night as like a “secondary Mardi Gras.” “It gives you another chance to add stuff to your suit that you didn’t have time to do for Mardi Gras,” he said. “It gives you a sense of completion. When you come back for St. Joseph’s night or the [Indian Super Sunday] parade, you’re ready.”
Goodman isn’t masking this year as he is helping to create a suit for the Flaming Arrows Second Chief Kenny Young that will be in tribute to Chief Iron Horse, who died in 2013.
Goodman remembers walking on St. Joseph’s night with his father, the late Big Chief Merk, from Downtown to Uptown.
Nowadays, vehicles are often used to make the trip.
Chiefs Montana and Goodman both plan to participate in the Indian Super Sunday Parade presented by the Mardi Gras Indian Council on March 15, 2015.
The festival, which begins at 11 am at A.L. Davis Park on the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, includes live music all day and activities for children. The Indian parade, which features brass bands and social aid and pleasure clubs, starts from there at 1 pm. It heads down LaSalle moving on to Simon Bolivar Boulevard, turns left on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, left on South Claiborne Avenue, left on Washington Avenue, and ends at the park.
Bertrand Butler, the president of the Indian Council, says that this year’s event will honor the Wild Magnolia’s legendary Big Chief Bo Dollis, who passed away on January 20, 2015. “For the last five years, he rode in a convertible in the parade, so this year the Council decided to include an empty convertible,” Butler explains. “He’s the one who took us [the Mardi Gras Indian tradition] around the world,” Butler exclaims, quickly adding the names of other ambassadors of the culture such as Tootie Montana, Big Chief Jolly of the Wild Tchoupitoulas and musician Professor Longhair.
It is certain that tambourines will ring out in memory of Chief Bo Dollis at the corner of Second and Dryades streets on St. Joseph’s night. He was vital to the nighttime—and Mardi Gras—scene, and it is a spot that could be considered his headquarters. Downtown Indians, wherever they might roam, will remember him too as Bo Dollis’ warm smile knew no boundaries.
“Injuns, here dey come…”