The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council is perhaps best recognized by the general population for presenting its spectacular Indian Super Sunday parade. It’s held annually Uptown on the third Sunday in March, which this year happens to fall on March 19th, coinciding with another significant date in the Black Indian tradition. St. Joseph’s Night is when, after sunset, the Mardi Gras Indians once again take to the streets to meet each other in a ritual of song, dance and beauty.
“The majority of the tribes will do both of them,” says Big Chief Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West, president of the Council.
The Council, which was chartered in 1985, boasts importance in the Mardi Gras Indian Nation, black communities and the whole of New Orleans beyond its fun festival and parade.
Chief of Chiefs Robert “Robbe” Lee, who came up under the legendary Brother Tillman, spoke to the organization’s founder and present director, Bertrand Butler, about the Indian gangs coming together in order, explains Miller, “so we could control our own destiny.”
Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis was appointed as the Council’s first president. Presently, 18 tribes are represented in the Council, including some of those that first joined up like the Creole Wild West, White Cloud Hunters, Mohawk Hunters, Fi-Yi-Yi and more.
Though some rivalries prevail among the gangs—they are, after all, vying to be declared “the prettiest”—the Mardi Gras Indian Council solidified the Black Indian Nation. While some perceive the Council to be an Uptown organization, primarily because it presents its festival at A.L. Davis Park and parades in the Uptown neighborhood, its membership has always included tribes from all over the city.
With a unified front, the gangs were able to stand as one following the dangerous fiasco of St. Joseph’s Night 2005. Police sirens wailed as their cars sped straight across the neutral ground on LaSalle Street aiming to halt a gathering tribe ringing their tambourines. Bertrand Butler was beaten by police and was further threatened as chiefs Larry Bannock and Darryl Montana stood their ground in front of the police car. The Mardi Gras Indian Council asked Butler to arrange a meeting with the New Orleans City Council to address the issue. Chiefs, Indians and their followers were there as Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas declared, “This has got to stop!” before collapsing at the podium and dying while surrounded by his fellow Black Indians.
Since that time, there has been a monumental change in the attitude and action of the police toward the Mardi Gras Indian activities as well as those of the social aid and pleasure club parades. Presently, says Miller, the Council’s monthly meetings are dealing with more positive things, like planning for its Indian parade and the renovation of two buildings owned by the Council on LaSalle Street across from A.L. Davis Park.
“Right now we are in the process of making our buildings a reality. We call it the Mardi Gras Indian Campus,” explains Miller, who envisions a “fun place” with sewing machines, computers, a performance area and a coffee shop. “The children—that’s what we do, that’s what we talk about. They’ll be able to hear about us from us.”
“Jerome Smith with Tambourine and Fan started this whole Super Sunday parade. It began Uptown and went all the way Downtown and ended at Hunter’s Field [North Claiborne and St. Bernard Avenues],” remembers Miller, who began masking Indian in 1969 as a chief scout with the Apache Hunters.
Parts of that route, however, were disconnected from the community to whom the Mardi Gras Indians faithfully serve. So Smith decided to make a change and to start the parade at Bayou St. John.
“Jerome Smith, he’s a brilliant person, so what I think was that he probably envisioned all the Indians on the bayou—there is something about all that water,” Miller offers. Indeed, one of the classic Black Indian call-and-response chants is “Shallow Water, Oh Mama.”
While the title Super Sunday originated with the Tambourine and Fan’s event, now, says Miller, that name has been applied to all of the Indian processions. “There’s Super Sunday Uptown, Downtown and across the river,” Miller notes. “The Council’s parade was originally called Indian Sunday but the people called it Super Sunday.”
“When we first started we just had Indians,” he explains. “For 15 years or more we have incorporated brass bands and social aid and pleasure clubs. The Young Men Olympian and the Lady Buckjumpers have always been with us.”
The festival begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 19 with music by DJ Jubilee and DJ Captain Charles, with live gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz and blues groups performing throughout the day. “Bertrand Butler has been an inspiration,” says Miller. “He worked hard to bring the vendors and the kids’ rides in. He always thought it should be kid-friendly.”
Some 30 Black Indian gangs are expected to participate in the parade that leaves Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street at 1 p.m.