Tambourines ring and sewing needles fly with particular intensity during the weeks leading up to Carnival Day as the Mardi Gras Indians prepare for the holiday. On Sunday evenings, many of the tribes hold Indian “practice” at barrooms across the city where they sing, dance and welcome other Black Indian gangs to their gatherings.
“The practice is a spiritual thing and came from Congo Square,” explains Tyrone Stevenson, Big Chief Pie of the Monogram Hunters. “When we do Indian practice on Sunday we’re doing homage to the slaves in Congo Square where all that began. Practice will always be sacred and always be on Sunday. Practice for Indians is for you to give and receive—it’s for you to receive the spirit from the Mardi Gras Indians and it’s to give you the spirit so you can go home and sew.”
Big Chief Pie, 50, was only 12 years old when he first masked Indian with the Yellow Pocahontas led by Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. He spent 10 years in the position of spyboy with the gang and 15 years as a flagboy. When Stevenson felt ready to pull his own gang, he asked Tootie and his brother Edward Montana, the Second Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, for permission to use the name Monogram Hunters, a tribe that had long been gone from the streets and that had been led by the Montana’s grand-uncle, Becate Batiste. Batiste, not so incidentally, is credited with having founded and being the Chief of the Creole Wild West, the first Black Indian tribe that’s reported to have hit the streets in the 1880s.
“Tootie and Edward gave us their blessing,” says Chief Pie, who began leading the Monogram Hunters in 1992. He keeps to old-school traditions and his ties to the Yellow Pocahontas continue to run deep. Notably, the Chief holds practice in the same building on Pauger and Marais streets, now called the First & Last Stop Bar, where the late Chief Tootie Montana held his practices back in the day.
He remembers being there on some Sunday nights when he was only 11 years old. “When you walk in that bar you can feel the spirit of the Indians in there,” says Chief Pie. “I told the owner, Miss Carol, how much history that building had and she was more than happy for us to have Indian practice there.”
“Everything I do I give homage to where I came from,” the Chief continues, adding that the Monogram Hunters also come out of the 7th Ward bar on Mardi Gras day. “With me taking the name of the Monogram Hunters, the whole thing I wanted to do was for everybody to know the history of where this came from. I’m just keeping everything alive. I never wanted to go outside of what I was taught.”
Practices also provide a place for younger Indians to learn the traditional Black Indian rituals and the meanings behind them. “I’m not just an Indian chief—I try to teach the culture first,” Chief Pie explains. “I want you to know why you chant and what you chant. I want to let you know why you dance the way you dance, why flagboys meet flagboys, why queens meet queens why chiefs meets chiefs.”
“I have lot of tribes come to our practice—the Wild Magnolias, the Flaming Arrows—and we try to use a lot of tambourines like Tootie and them did,” Big Chief Pie offers. “With the tambourine you can hear what we sing because when you’re singing you’re telling a story about all the years. Us old guys we don’t want to get rid of that. When you get rid of that you’re going to get rid of a whole part of this culture.”
Growing up, the young Tyrone lived right around the corner from Tootie Montana’s home on North Villere Street in the 7th Ward. “We couldn’t actually go in the street and watch them. We had to stand on the porch or stoop and Mom and them would hold your hand,” he remembers. “Back then, it was violent. People really feared the Indians—it was like really primitive.”
“I was fascinated by the colors coming down the street,” the Chief continues. “And I’m like, ‘I want to do that. That looks so nice. I hope I get my chance to do that.’”
At 11, Tyrone told his mother and father, who were friends with Tootie, that he wanted to mask Indian. Furthering the young boy’s cause was that his mother had also done some sewing for Chief Tootie, primarily creating ribbons and bows, plus he had an uncle who, decades earlier, masked Indian with Montana. “My uncle made my first suit and I watched,” Chief Pie recalls. “Every time he touched something or anytime he did something I was there so I watched him and I learned.”
“Like my daddy said, ‘If you want to do this you really have to get into it so you can do it yourself.’ I said, ‘Okay, well next year I’ll make my own suit’ and I did. I’ve been making suits from that point on.”
The Monogram Hunters will roll with 15 masked Indians including Tyrone’s son, Second Chief Jeremy, and his life partner Big Queen Denise Smith.
“The culture is for everybody—we make the suits for the world to see,” declares Big Chief Pie. “You have to be committed to this thing. It’s a commitment you have to make and a lot of self-sacrifice. We have to sew when we don’t want to sew. I do a lot of singing at Indian practice. You can’t just mask, you’ve got to be a showman too.”