Ronald Lewis’ lifetime journey in New Orleans’ African-American cultural traditions.
Through the decades, Ronald Lewis has played numerous roles in the New Orleans—and particularly his Lower Ninth Ward—community. He’s masked Indian and skeleton, second lined out the door with social aid and pleasure clubs, taken photographs, curated his museum, The House of Dance & Feathers, and authored a book of the same name. Though these might seem to be somewhat disparate activities, he sees them as being of “one world” derived from this city’s African-American communities.
Lewis’ warm smile is probably almost as renowned as his reputation for his insights into the mysteries and magic of the New Orleans black cultural traditions. Throughout his 30 years of working as a streetcar track repairman with the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, Lewis, 64, continued to remain socially and politically active in representing his black heritage.
These days, he shares his cumulative knowledge by offering tours of his museum that specializes in Mardi Gras Indians, Skull & Bones gangs and social aid and pleasure clubs. First established in 2003 and later resurrected after its demise following Hurricane Katrina, the museum is located in a small building behind his home on Tupelo Street, in, of course, the Lower Ninth Ward.
Lewis has been recognized for his endeavors beyond his “across the canal” neighborhood. In 2008 he reigned as the King of the Krewe du Vieux with his wife, Queen Charlotte “Minnie” Hill, who is part of the musical Hill-Lastie-Andrews family, by his side. Lewis has also been a member of the Krewe du Jieux since its formation in 1996. “They gave me the title of the Big Macher [Big Shot] of the krewe,” says Lewis. “I’ve made a few things for them—little umbrellas and things like that, though I’m more of a consultant.”
During Lewis’ lifetime journey in New Orleans’ African-American cultural traditions, he hasn’t wavered in his dedication no matter his role. As the co-founder and president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club for 20 years, his enthusiasm for its annual parade remains as strong as ever.
“To me, when you get to the top of that bridge [the St. Claude Avenue Bridge], the most powerful and embracing sight to see is when your whole community is there to greet you.”
You have been involved with so many different organizations in the black community. Which came first?
Mardi Gras Indians. That’s my first love. I got involved with the culture when I was about 12 or 13 and I learned to sew from Ricky [Gettridge] who was a spyboy for the Yellow Pocahontas under Chief Tootie Montana. And everything just went on from there. I didn’t mask when I first got involved. I got involved through sewing. Up to today, my passion is seeing a suit made. It doesn’t have to be for me; it’s just the idea of seeing that creativity come to life. Once you get involved in the Mardi Gras Indian culture, you’re always going to be involved—it becomes a part of you. Like I tell people, that’s a cultural addiction. You never stop. You might stop making suits but you’re going to find some way to be involved. Now, my thing is telling our story.
Why did you leave the Yellow Pocahontas to form the Choctaw Hunters?
Me and Edgar Jacobs Jr. formed the Choctaw Hunters in 1990. Our Big Chief is Edgar. I was a spyboy but that was temporary because I started masking my son, Richard “Fat” Lewis. He had the title of gang flag with the gang.
At the time down here [in the Lower 9th Ward] they had Rudy with the Ninth Ward Hunters and they had the Ninth Ward Flaming Arrows but they slowed down some so we sort of filled the void. We reactivated the tribes in the community. Now you’ve got the Ninth Ward Hunters, you’ve got the Comanches, Red Hawk, the Ninth Ward Navajo Hunters, the Ninth Ward Seminoles and the Choctaw Hunters.
You are presently the President of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club. What made you decide to move from the Indian to the parade tradition?
It’s one world because we make up that world. From the African-American community these events arrive. What we end up doing is at some point cross-culture. So you might say, ‘I’m tired of masking [Indian], I’m going to parade.’ It’s made up of the same community under different titles.
Me, Ricky Gettridge, Edgar Jacobs Jr., Peter Alexander, Robert Starks and Artie Anderson [all members of the Choctaw Hunters] formed the Big Nine in 1995.
What happened was we were part of the Double Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club but I didn’t feel they were active enough in doing the [community] outreach. So I stayed there a couple of years and started the Big Nine.
Having sewed Mardi Gras Indian suits must have helped you in designing and creating items like sashes, umbrellas, baskets and the like for the Big Nine.
It truly do. It’s an all-hands experience. So it just transfers over to parade regalia—that’s simple for me. It’s not as in-depth as sitting down with that thread and needle and creating a design and whole [Indian] suit from head to toe. It’s very intense. You get to this time of year, and there are sleepless nights and you’re thinking, ‘Where am I going to find more money and everything else that goes into making a Mardi Gras Indian suit?’ The sewing that I do now is for exhibit at The House of Dance & Feathers.
Is walking out the door at the start of the Big Nine’s anniversary parade day similar to taking the street as a Mardi Gras Indian?
It’s all connecting with the people. That’s the true experience and the response of the people to what you’re doing. It’s an adrenaline rush. You’re on top of the world. It’s like ‘Look at me—look what I have done.’ That’s a tremendous feeling for you, your friends and family and everyone. I think every Mardi Gras Indian or parader feels that way. For a parader when you walk out the door and you show off those fancy shoes and you’ve got a big cigar in your mouth, it’s ‘Bam, here I am. I’m the Big Macher’—that’s the Jewish term for the Big Shot. I got that from being a part of Krewe du Jieux. That’s another part of my extended family.
It seems like coming out with the Black Indians on Carnival Day might be more spiritual in nature.
Both of them are spiritual. Before the parade, you have a parade banner and you either go to the church or have someone come to the start-up location to bless your parade. You have to understand that the social aid and pleasure club history is derived from the benevolent societies of the African-American church.
You’re also a member of the North Side Skull & Bones gang. Since they come out of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme, that kind of takes you out of your Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood on Mardi Gras.
I started with the gang in 2003 under the leadership of the great Al Morris. I asked Al [if I could join], that’s how the tradition goes. If you want to be a part of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe you ask. It’s always been like that.
So I was hanging around the Backstreet in 2002 when I was getting ready to retire from the transit system and I said, ‘This looks like fun and it won’t take a lot to do.’ So one day I asked Chief Al if I could join and be his Gatekeeper. And he said yes and we bonded and came together from there.
I’m a people’s person. By being a people’s person I have friends across the city. Being good friends with Sylvester [curator Sylvester Francis] at the Backstreet gave me the opportunity to meet some very interesting people.
Is the Gatekeeper a regular position with a bone gang? Did anyone ever hold that position before?
It was my idea—to be the one who takes care of the house when the tribe is gone—and Chief Al accepted it. I wasn’t physically sound so being the Gatekeeper compensated for it. I can dance but I can’t dance no long distance. Just like the day of a [Big Nine] parade, I can come out that door and go one or two blocks and then I jump into a convertible.
What’s the most fun about being a skeleton? Did Al teach you to build the outfit?
Interaction with the people. I’d be in front of the Backstreet, I’m taking pictures with people and children and everything. That helps you make you enjoy your stay. The whole thing that we do is about the people.
I have my visual. That goes back to the involvement with the Mardi Gras Indians. I have my vision and bring it to life.
You have also been a photographer. When did that start?
I’m the master of the $10 camera. That is my way of documenting what was around me. I think I started sometime in the mid to late 1980s. When I look at a Mardi Gras Indian suit, I know what I’m looking at. Compared to a professional photographer, he’s looking at the beauty of the work but he doesn’t have the inner knowledge of what it took for that person to make that suit. The pictures that I take is like, ‘Wow, that guy really did his homework. I’m going to take his picture.’