At the celebration of life for Thomas “Big Chief Tom” Sparks Sr., on March 24, 2018, the most important elements of his life were fully represented. Sparks was a family man and as the Chief of the Yellowjacket Black Indian gang, he made sure that in their lifetimes, all of his children masked Indian. His wife, the late Barbara Sparks, also reigned as his Big Queen. Thomas “Big Chief Tom” Sparks Sr. died on March 15, 2018 at the age of 86.
At the beginning of the remembrance, members of the Mardi Gras Indians paid tribute to Sparks, who donned his first Indian suit in 1947 when he masked as a flagboy with the Bumble Bee Hunters. He had led the Yellowjacket tribe since 1955. After the Indian prayer song, “Indian Red,” solemnly echoed through the funeral home, most of the Indians proceeded out of the side door with tambourines ringing. Later, they would continue their chants as they followed the hearse in an Indian procession.
Indoors, members of the Masons fraternal organization, of which Sparks was a long-time member, continued praising his involvement in their order and his many contributions to the community. They strikingly stood out in their black and white suits and fez hats.
Big Chief Thomas Sparks was a Mardi Gras Indian for a lifetime and an influence on many in the Mardi Gras Indian nation. As late as 2015, he was still wielding a needle and thread in preparation for his next appearance on the streets.
“He always did set an example,” said Clarence Delcour, Big Chief Delco of the Creole Osceola in a 2015 interview. “He still always tried to make a suit because it all comes from his heart.”
Even as a little boy, Sparks would follow the Indians. His childhood curiosity in the culture was further ignited by the fact that his mother was a full-blooded Native American of the Cherokee nation.
Another noted Indian who came up under Sparks’ tutelage is his nephew Big Chief Little Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters. Renowned for his great voice, Little Charles credited Sparks for his singing ability and more. “He’s a guy who would explain stuff to you about being an Indian.”
Sparks’ competitive nature was also realized in his other passion, pigeon racing. Just outside Sparks’ bedroom with its closet full of Indian suits, was an impressive 8×10 coop that at one time housed as many as 75 homing pigeons.
A retired mason and carpenter as well as a master designer and sewer, Big Chief Tom performed at the first Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds and traveled to Europe demonstrating the art of making an Indian suit.
The spirit of Thomas “Big Chief Tom” Sparks lives on in the Mardi Gras Indian nation and beyond.