When Allison “Tootie” Montana sits down in his kitchen at the end of a day, it’s not long before geometric patterns start to dance around his head. He sketches these into his notebook, and he and his wife, Joyce, spend the rest of the year painstakingly sewing the designs into Montana’s new suit.
The Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas has been masking Indian for 46 years, and his unique, “Downtown-style” costumes are arguably the most beautiful in the city. It’s been said that Tootie’s grand-uncle, Becate Batiste, was the first New Orleanian African-American to dress as an Indian. Those days are shrouded in mystery and song, but at 71 Tootie is the oldest active Big Chief, and he provides a rare glimpse at the legendary days of inner-city tribal warfare. As he says, “The kind of people that used to mask, they didn’t worry about no beauty.”
But Montana’s Seventh Ward house is beautiful—kind of like one of his suits. Tootie sculpted the interior to look like a historic French Quarter home, and decorated it with bright red carpet and white walls. Photos and posters depict the Big Chief over the years, and the kitchen table spills over with bright stones and thread. There’s a black and white photograph of Tootie masking with his father, circa 1947.
On a recent pre-Mardi Gras evening, Tootie took a break from his sewing to sit down at his dining room table to talk. But he didn’t stay there long—he picked up his tambourine throughout the interview, and he occasionally danced in the living room just to make his points clear. His wife, Joyce, also joined the conversation. But when his four-year-old grandson, Chantz, was asked who his favorite Indian tribe is, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he went to his backpack and took out a bookmark decorated with Tootie’s face.
“He’s shy now,” says the Chief. “But he’s not shy at Indian practice.”
You take your grandson to practice?
He’s four years old and he’s been out there four years.
How many family members mask with you?
Right now I have my own grandson, and my brother, his daughter and about three of his grandchildren, my son-in-law—so there’s probably going to be about eight of them this year. I help them—I feel just as proud to see my son wearing my ideas as to be wearing them myself.
Does your family help you with your suit?
Man, if it hadn’t been for my son-in-law, Pernell Butler, and my wife, I wouldn’t have been on the streets this many years. Pernell helps me with the feathers, and now he’s going to mask this year.
How did you get your nickname?
My mother’s cousin gave me that name. She used to come around every Mardi Gras day with her children. She’d say, “I’m coming to see my boy Tootie.” And she died, and I masked in black that year. That year was the only time I ever masked in black. And it was pretty.
Your suits are very different than a lot of other Indians. Instead of pictures of Indians, you use abstract designs, and your materials are different.
This is nothing like getting a guy to make a picture and sitting down and beading it—this is not that type of costume. This is strictly created. This is stuff that I see in my mind.
What’s that like, when you first imagine a costume idea?
I just sit down at night, and I like to wait until everybody’s asleep—which there ain’t but two of us in this house, so I don’t have to wait a long time. I’ve never gone to bed before my wife since we been together.
Start with a quiet house. Then what?
The house is quiet, and I just sit down, maybe drop my head in my hand, and start thinking. Boy, and here it come—here it come—and I have a scratch pad and I draw it. Sketch it right quick, while it’s there.
You look at the other costumes, and they all look alike. But this suit that I’m making, when I get through with it, it’ll be the first time that this particular costume ever entered into this world. That’s how I look at it.
I’ll show you how things go—sometimes I’ll be in that kitchen drawing, and I’ll draw a design, and the first one I see, it looks like something new. And as I start working with it, I call my wife and say, “Look, how do you like this?” And she says, “Oh, but you’ve already had something like that.” And I don’t use that.
Did you learn this from your father (Alfred Montana, Sr., Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas in the 1930s and 1940s) the same way you’re teaching your family?
I might take it from the genes, because my daddy was a painter and a designer himself. But you see, he didn’t show me anything, because I wasn’t reared in the house with him.
But he still helped you when you started out?
The first year I masked, I let him make my crown for me. And the first year he made it nice, and the next year he made it small. And I was ridiculed, because they had a guy who was in my tribe with me, and he said, “Who’s the Big Chief?”—because he had one of the biggest crowns I ever seen. So I told my dad, “Why did you cut my feathers short?” And I started making my own crown.
How about your profession as a metal lather (building frames for houses)? Did that help you construct your suit?
Right. The type of work that I did had a lot to do with how I make my suit—like, breaking circles down into so many equal parts. That’s what gave me the knowledge. I make my suit the way a building is put up. My trade helped me with designing my costume, and my designing my costume helped me with my trade. That’s the reason why I knew how to bend and shape the iron, because I was used to doing it with cardboard. The basic way of doing it is the same.
Except that with an Indian suit, you can be a bit more creative?
Yeah, yeah—you can add beauty to it, you see.
How much money do you put into that suit every year?
I tried a few times to keep the receipts. But I gave that up.
Try explaining that marabou to the taxman. What materials do you use?
I use stones, but I use the big stones—pearls, gold beads. I get them at different costume places in the area.
Stones, feathers, marabou, feather tips. You see, you put about five or six tips on each feather, and you got about 200 or so feathers. That’s a lot of tips.
There’s no active Chief who has the kind of connection to the past that you have. Many people say that the first Mardi Gras Indian was a man named Becate Batiste, who started the first Creole Wild West in the 1880s.
He was my grandmother’s brother—I’m talking maybe about 110 or 115 years ago that he was masking, and that’s as far as I can go with it.
Why do you think the first Mardi Gras Indian was inspired to put on a suit?
I don’t know. I hear people say that during slavery time, the Africans went by the Indians and started dressing like them, but I can’t confirm that. I wasn’t there then.
How about the idea that the costumes were inspired by traveling Wild West shows?
No, the Mardi Gras Indian was out in the street way before they started having the Wild West shows coming into town. It’s beyond that. It’s some reason, but the people who could answer that question are dead and gone. I’m just 71.
Did you ever ask your grandmother about these things?
At that time I was a kid and didn’t know that I was going to get older and wind up being an Indian chief, and I didn’t think to ask that. I’m sorry, because there’s a lot of information I could have gotten from her.
You’ve been featured in movies and won such recognition as the National Heritage Fellowship. (A letter from President Reagan sits on Montana’s mantle.) But the early Mardi Gras Indians weren’t respected in these ways.
Yeah, well, some of them were pimps. And a lot of the queens used to be prostitutes. That’s why they could afford to spend that money for all that expensive material during them days.
My daddy’s queen was a prostitute. I remember my brother and I went into his house the Monday before Carnival to pick up my crown. I was about eight or nine years old, just a little older than Chantz. And she came in there, almost crying. It was almost dusk-dark on Monday, and she came in there and said that Carnival was tomorrow, and she had everything but her stocking.
And he told her, “Go on out there and sell some more you-know-what.” And she must have got the stockings.
You were around eight?
But I knew what they was talking about.
And that wasn’t unusual for the Indians?
The Indians a long time ago were pimps, gamblers, women prostitutes and notorious people. People who would just do anything. A lot of the queens used to be shoplifters. They’d go into the store and help the guys get their suits.
What was your mother’s reaction when you started joining these people?
When I first told her as a kid she said, “Boy, you don’t need to do that.” Because she knew what trouble it was. And every Mardi Gras morning—we’re Catholic—my mother would come around and pin a scapular on me. She’s 93 and still living about three blocks from here, and she wouldn’t go to bed until she called my house.
Does she understand that it’s a somewhat different scene today?
Oh, she’s proud of me now.
What kind of violence did you see as a child when you were with the Indians?
One year I saw the queen on Marigny and Claiborne—that same queen I’m talking about, that I told you used to mask with my father—I saw her slap a white man’s face so hard because he wouldn’t stop his car to let her pass.
And I’d seen the Wild Man, Rock, and I’d seen how violent he was.
Was Rock with your tribe?
He was the Wild Man of the Yellow Pocahontas. And I guess they called him that because he was hard as a rock. There has never been, and there will never be a Wild Man like Rock.
What was so wild about him?
See, he lived on the dump. Just lived on the dump. Everything he put on, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, the cigarette he smoked—on the dump. My brother and I used to go out there to get little scraps of wood to make furniture with, and we’d see him. And when he put that suit on, you better get the hell out of the way. He’d run over you like a ball shot out of a cannon. When he came through with his head down and those horns on his helmet—man, people would be getting up for the next 20 minutes, women with babies in their arms…it was rough, man.
And the Flag Boys used to carry their flags on a pencil rod, and they would take those rods and put a point on that thing like a needle, and they’d carry their flag on that.
So it was a weapon.
And they’re running with it, and you better get out of the way or they’d run that thing clean through you.
Did you ever see anyone get speared with one of those?
I never saw them penetrate nobody, because people would get the hell out of the way.
Do you miss the old days?
I’m glad they changed, and they don’t do that. Now they fight with their costume.
I’ve always wanted to know just why that change happened. How did a tradition that included so much violence become one that was more artistic?
I’ll tell you what happened. You always had Uptown and Downtown. Now, all Uptown Indians considered the Downtown Indians their enemy. And all the Downtown Indians considered the Uptown Indians their enemies. So when they’re practicing, they’re just like soldiers in boot camp—they’re training for war.
The Magnolia Bridge was Uptown, and the same tribe that I’m pulling today, the Yellow Pocahontas, would cross that Magnolia Bridge every time. And that’s when the shooting would be going on.
Guns would come out?
Oh, they’d have the shotguns decorated.
We’re not talking about shooting in the air here.
Shooting in the air! Shit—man, they’d be aiming for each other! They had real hatchets—that’s what the Queens used to carry. Sharp like a razor—you could shave with it. Decorated, and they’d have ribbon hanging on it. And you better get out of the way.
And they had this word, “hum bah.” It’s a Creole word. “Hum bah” means “bow, get down.” And when one tribe would meet the other one, the Spy Boy would meet the enemy first. When they’d see feathers, the Spy Boy would give the signal to the Flag Boy. And the Chief would have to watch that flag all day, and when he’d see the signal, he’d know there’d be some trouble coming up ahead.
During these times, the Indians used to carry weapons. But it was mostly the second lines—the people that’d follow them. Each Chief might have five or six people carrying guns to protect him. And the same thing is going on Uptown—they got their people with the guns.
Yeah, man, one year back in the Seventh Ward, I don’t know who carried me home. And that’s why Mama never did want me to mask Indian.
I never did get shot. I was about eight or nine years old, and they grabbed me and brought me home.
Another thing about Mardi Gras when I was a kid was that it was a revenge day. That’s why a lot of people didn’t come out into the street. If a guy had a misunderstanding with someone in the summer, he’d wait until Carnival day when the street was crowded, and he’d put on a woman’s dress and he’d roll his pants up underneath that. And the only way you can trick him is if you’re dressed like a woman too. All you’d hear is people scream and see a man fall with an ice pick in him, and he’d go into a barroom and leave that dress on the floor.
Oh yeah, it used to be low-down.
So how did the violence begin to lessen?
We had more second-line activity down on this side of Canal Street than they had up there. And we’d have people that followed us that never followed a second line before in their life. Decent people—the kind of people that wouldn’t be caught dead around a second line. If I’m not mistaken, we had a couple nuns follow us.
There’s your respectability.
And the same guys masking Indian, they’d come down here to see the parade. So they can’t afford to have no fights and bad feelings among each other, because then they can’t come down here to see no parades. If you want to make trouble at Carnival, you catch it at the parades, and we’d run you uptown.
And now we’re all friends. They come to my practice, and we go to theirs. I don’t have no reason to have a private practice to scheme against the Creole Wild West, because the Chief of the Creole Wild West is my little partner. He respects me like he’s my son.
Nowadays, the biggest hurt I ever get is that needle tearing up my finger. And it really be hurtin’, but I keep on sewing. Every year I have blood on my outfit, but you just can’t help it, man.
But I’ve been out there this year for 46 years, and I hope that it continues to be the way it is.
You hope it stays peaceful.
It don’t make sense for nothing other than that. That’s not my purpose. My purpose is because it’s a part of my life and I do it for the people out there to see Tootie Montana.
I wonder what the Mardi Gras Indians could teach gangs in Los Angeles or New York, or even, in New Orleans? How to keep the cultural traditions, but also become friends, and change the violence to artistic competition?
I tell you, we got a lot of rock stars [crack addicts] right around this block, and they don’t fool with me. I get a lot of respect. Out in those second lines, everybody knows me. I know I have a good influence on young people all over the city.
People are upset nowadays by violence in music, especially rap. A lot of the Indian songs describe battles pretty vividly, and who was killed and where it happened.
Oh yeah, they sing the songs.
Nobody can get killed by a song.
No, nobody can get killed by a song, that’s right. You do your fighting with the suit.
When you’re out there on Mardi Gras, those aren’t set words that you’re singing. How do you learn to improvise like that?
Like anything else, its years of experience that tell you what to do.
When did you first hear the songs?
I was a little kid at my Daddy’s practice. See, they didn’t practice in the barrooms like they do today. They’d rent a little house for about three or four dollars a month. Each man would put a little money down. They used to have oil lamps around the walls for light. And they’d be on the floor dancing among each other, and they used to have a couple gallons of wine, and they’d be plotting what to do with the other tribes.
Now that practices are in bars, more and more people are starting to come just to watch the Indians.
Yes, they’re coming closer and closer to it, you see. People used to run from the Indians. Now they’re running to them.
Does that disrupt the practices? Or is it good for the Indians?
Oh no, that’s good for their practice.
As long as you keep them in control.
And when people come up to you and ask if they can take your picture—how do you feel about that?
A long time ago, it was the second line—they would stand in front to stop the people from taking my picture. And they’d ask them, “You want to take these pictures, you got to pay.” And they’d collect money.
But the last time a guy collected money, a white lady was in a station wagon with three or four of her little kids and her husband. And I think I was in pink that year. She called me “a complicated beauty.” So she wanted to take a picture, and I was letting her take it, and here he comes standing up in front. I think he wanted $5 or $10 to take it.
So that evening I said, “Well, we’ll drink it up and get $10 in wine or beer and let everybody that’s following me have something to drink.” So he starts searching all of his pockets, and I’m looking at him and he’s knocked out drunk. He broke that $10 bill and was spending my money all down that road. So from that day on I don’t collect nothing. I let them take the free picture.
You talked about the woman who slapped the man in the car for getting in the way. That reminded me of what happened last year, when you became politically involved, trying to get the Mardi Gras Indians to have a right of way in the streets, and to stop what you said was police harassment.
I’m glad you mentioned that. Now that the Indian himself has a better relationship with other Indians, you know who’s your biggest problem now? The police.
What kinds of things happen?
Well, at around 5 in the evening, way before time, they’d hose Orleans Street, and wet you all up. They’d be right out there on Orleans and Claiborne, pumping that water out like they’re crazy. Sirens blowing, children running—there’s little bitty children out there, man. I looked at one of the policemen and called him a so-and-so right to his face. Looking at me like I’m trouble.
Did you get wet?
They missed me. But it’s unnecessary. Why mess with me?
Joyce Montana: And after all that money they spend making their suits.
It must be hell on the feathers.
Yeah, yeah, you go out there after, you spent all that money. And it always been like that. Years ago, during the early years, before they built the I-10 overpass, we used to go Uptown singing, “We goin’ Uptown, Two-way Pocky Way”—and when we’d get to Poydras and Claiborne, we always had problems with the police. They’d form five or six of them across the street with their billies in the air. And they took a chance, because in them days, those boys had guns under their costumes.
But last year you fought your battle in the City Council instead.
Like you said, I got politically involved. Then they sent police to escort me.
So did it improve any after the Council passed the ordinance supporting the Mardi Gras Indians?
Well, yeah—and I hope they treat it the same way this year, too.
What’s the best thing the city could do to help the Indians?
When Morial was mayor, they closed St. Bernard, Claiborne, Orleans—that’s what they should do every year. Close it.
Last year when you worked on this problem, you joined forces with the Mardi Gras Indian Council. They were working hard on this issue, too.
Well, they had a meeting, and I went there. But I never want to be part of the Indian Council. There’s nothing for me to join. I’ve been out there 46 years, and I don’t need for anybody to try to organize me.
Do you think that some good is coming out of the organization?
They’re doing something Uptown. But no matter what they do, the second lines—all that—started downtown. They can’t take that French Quarter and bring it uptown. The history is down here. And they know that. So if you can’t beat a guy, you join him. So they try to shift some of the stuff that we do down here uptown.
So you see it as an Uptown-Downtown thing?
Does your tribe have secrets from other tribes?
Not really. They try to keep their color a secret, but nothing besides that.
Is your color a secret?
What’s your color this year?
Lime green. I’ll tell it, but in the early years they were more secret about it. A lot of times, even the guys in your own tribe didn’t know your own color, until that day. A couple years ago I told my color. You’re depending on the costume places to have your color. And if too many of you try to go out in the same color, somebody’s going to catch hell, because you’re going to run out.
So you told somebody your color one year?
And they went out and bought all the color up?
This Mardi Gras Indian thing is a jealous game. Several of them went on and used that color, and I had a problem getting material. See, whatever I’m going to do, it travels: “Tootie Montana’s going to be lime green this year.”
Who are the other Big Chiefs that you respect the most?
Little Walter (of the Creole Wild West) does alright for a youngster.
Most of them can’t stand up on the floor with me. My brother used to come to my practice before he started masking, and there were all these people dancing and he’d turn to me and say, “When are you going to dance?” And I’d say, “Man, you always come in here telling me when to dance. You don’t tell a sister when to shout in church!”
You see, when you’re in practice, with that music, and the spirit hits you, it’s just like a religion. When the spirit hits you, and you get on that floor, man—they can’t stop you. I’m up there with five or six different chiefs—I don’t dance with nobody but chiefs—and I dance with every one of them. I wear them all out. And I still be on that floor.
And I don’t realize how tired I am until I stop, and it looks like my heart is out of my body pumping.
It’s a spiritual experience.
It is, it is.
It used to be just the Indians who shared that experience. But now so many of the songs are better known, like “Iko-Iko.” Everyone in New Orleans knows “Iko-lko,” even if they don’t know where it came from.
It’s alright, but they change the words. Just like the Neville Brothers. The biggest hit they ever made is “Two-way Pocky Way.” But they say, “Hey Pocky Way.” That’s a no-no. You don’t change nothing. It’s not broke, don’t fix it. “Indian Red”—it’s not broke. “Two-Way Pocky Way”—it’s not broke. And everybody wants to change it, and they mess the song up.
How does that mess the song up—doesn’t it just become another song?
You see, “Two-way Pocky Way” is a dance number—it’s a song that you sing to dance. And “Two-way” (hitting on the table) has got to be in it to correspond with the beat of your feet. Now “Hey Pocky Way” doesn’t have that in there. So I’m dancing “Two-way Pocky Way” the way it’s supposed to be sung, and they’re singing “Hey Pocky Way,” and I got a problem dancing out there. It’s just like trying to do a waltz on a two-step. So I tell my people to do “Two-way Pocky Way.”
Tell me about “Indian Red.” That’s your favorite song?
Now “Indian Red” is a beautiful song. Let me show you something. (He gets up and retrieves a painted tambourine from the corner.)
Joyce Montana: He loves that song.
Tootie: See, you hit your drum. (singing) Mah-day two-de fiyo. That’s your introduction. Before you sing, you make your introduction: Big Chief Yellow Pocahontas/Don’t make no bow ’cause I don’t know how/From a dump I bust a rump/From Manila I make a caterpillar climb up a wall and he get to the top and he better not fall. See, you got all kinds of rhyme you put in it.
And then you go (hitting tambourine and singing) “Mah-day two-de fiyo,” and then the crowd comes in—and when my Daddy did it you had women’s voices in there. Man, it’ll put tears in your eyes. Il yan day, Il yan day/So we are from the nation/The wild, wild creation/Won’t you hear me calling/Softly, softly calling/Oh my Indian Red (My Indian Red)—and somebody will be singing: Oh we kill them dead/Because I love to hear you call my Indian Red.
Now it’s a song that you use to introduce all your members of your tribe. You get ready to call your Flag Boy and your Spy Boy, and you say: “Now take a look at your Spy Boy.” And you point, and it looks like he’s coming out of your finger if you’re doing it right.
And he’d shout, “Spy Boy Yellow Pocahontas!” and he’d get out on the floor and do his number, and then it’s: “Because I love to hear you call my Indian Red.”
And then I call the Flag Boy, and I call everybody. And I call the Second Chief, which is my brother, and I give him the tambourine and he calls me. And after he calls me, he gives me back the tambourine and I wind the song up. Then you start humming it (humming slowly) then you start fast (beating the tambourine) and then the songs over.
I sing it the way my daddy sang it. There’s this one Chief, every time he sees me, he says, “Oh, you got to change it.” How are you going to change something that they were singing before you were born? So I say, “If you want to change something, change the suit you make every year. Make a new suit. ”
(Tootie gets up) Here, I’m going to show you what a real rhinestone looks like. (He leaves the room)
(To Joyce Montana) Did you ever think when you were growing up that you’d be married to a Big Chief?
Joyce Montana: I never used to like to be around them. They’d say that the Indians were coming, and I’d run inside. When I met Tootie, I didn’t even know he was masking Indian.
What did you say when he told you?
Joyce Montana: When he came to my house he said, “I can’t stay because I got to go home and sew.” And it got me kind of angry, so I said, “What kind of sewing do you always got to rush home and sew?” And when I saw him for the first time in his suit, I said, “I see why.”
(Tootie returns from his workroom with two small blue stones in his hand) Now that’s a rhinestone. Man, when the sun hits that—they don’t know about that nowadays.
What makes a good Mardi Gras Indian Chief?
You’ve got to dress like a chief. That’s number one. Then you have to know how to act like a Chief—you got to have control over your people that’s under you.
There was a guy who used to mask Indian years ago—they called him Joe Black—and all he did was make trouble. He used to come to my practice every Sunday and beg me to mask with me, and I said, “Man, I don’t want you with me, all you’re going to do is make trouble.” But he kept on begging me, so I let him mask with me that year. And when we got to Orleans and Claiborne by the projects, a part of his costume broke.
I couldn’t stand up half the gang waiting for him. So when I did meet him, I met him at Lafitte and Claiborne. My daddy was second-lining behind me then—he wasn’t masking, but he had his suit on and was just walking, and I know he had his pistol on him. Joe Black came up hollering at me and my daddy said, “Don’t let him talk to you like that,” and boom, my daddy punched him on the jaw and knocked him down.
And we haven’t left him ten minutes when he ran up to another guy who was just as humbuggish as him—a Chief we call Sonny Boy. And Sonny Boy beat him up. So he got two beatings that day.
So to be a good Chief, that’s what you got to avoid.
We’ve been talking about the history. What does the future look like for the Mardi Gras Indians?
The future of it looks alright, but I can tell by the vibrations that I get from the past couple of years, that it’s going to turn back to violence again. I’m afraid of that, because I notice how too many of them are running their mouths so much. Just like in my daddy’s time, you always got guys running messages back and forth. Guys from Uptown that might play deceitful with the guys downtown.
And you see another thing that guys do—a guy masked a couple years with me and I taught him a lot of my things, and now he masks with someone else on Mardi Gras Day. You got a little snitch in there.
But I don’t care. They never, ever could get it all out of me. Because as long as I breathe, it’s in me. As long as I think, it’s in me. They never can say, “We got him now.” No such a thing as that.
A few years ago I told a guy who was at a bar that I wasn’t going to mask that year. See, everybody is worried about beating Tootie Montana. Maybe if Tootie says he’s not masking, maybe they’ll come out and mask because they feel I’m not going to be there to be competition. So I put the lie out—I said, “No, I ain’t masking.” And he said, “What did you give it up for?” And I said, “I just gave it up.” He said, “In other words, you done run out of ideas.”
When he said that, I was walking away from him. I walked back and said, “Bro, what did you say?” I said, “Let me tell you something, man.” Oh, that bar was crowded, and I said, “I could draw an outfit for everybody in this bar. As long as I’m alive, I have ideas.”
Like I said, you can do to a person what you want, but you can’t take his thoughts away from him.