Victor Harris, the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, remains one of the most recognizable big chiefs in the Mardi Gras Indian Nation. His style is unique in everything he pursues—the designing, the songs, the exuberant way he engages a crowd. Foremost are his magnificent beaded suits and masks that honor African culture and his love of nature.
“Truly I’m a walking spirit,” says Harris. “When people see the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi they feel good. They rise. I am who I am in and out of the suit.”
When Harris steps out as Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors on Carnival Day, it will mark his amazing 55 years of masking Indian as well as perhaps his final time hitting the streets. “I would never say that I’m going to stop masking,” Harris absolutely declares before adding that knee problems and possible surgery could prevent his notably energized wanderings on the holiday. “I’ll be involved with it and I’ll definitely be involved in making more suits. I will be doing it until I can’t do it. I would love to do it forever, honestly.”
In 1965, Harris began masking flag boy with the Yellow Pocahontas under Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. “My first year it was like Indian fever—all you could think of was sew, sew, sew, Indian, Mardi Gras, Indian, Indian,” Harris excitedly remembered. That’s why, even though he and the Yellow Pocahontas parted ways some 18 years later, he still considers himself a member of Tootie’s tribe and believes that Montana would be proud that he has surpassed the renowned Chief of Chief’s 52 years of masking Indian.
“I’m a member of Tootie’s tribe—I am a born Yellow Pocahontas,” declares Harris. “He’s my chief until death—my only chief. It’s like he is passing the torch to me. Tootie put in all those years. Who ever thought somebody else would do that? Tootie made a brand new suit every year. There’s honor in that. That’s what it’s all about.”
Certain heartbreak still remains in Harris’ voice when he speaks of being “banished” from the Yellow Pocahontas in 1984. He won’t speak of the reason as he remains loyal to the gang—“I just love these people”—though one could speculate that his pain led him to greater things.
“Everything seemed hopeless to me—I had no tribe,” Harris once recalled.” I was banned from the Yellow Pocahontas which was my community, my livelihood and everything else. And I loved masking Mardi Gras Indian. The only thing that I could do was to pray.
“It was at night, I was all alone. I turned off every light in the house, the clock that was ticking, I stopped that from happening. I made sure the TV and the refrigerator were unplugged because I didn’t want to hear a humming sound. I just wanted to be alone with the spirit in the dark.
“I woke up that next morning and I felt very good and I just started stretching and flexing my arms and started to say ‘Yi-Yi.’ Suddenly I stopped and then I said ‘Fi-Yi-Yi’ and the third time I screamed it ‘Fi-Yi-Yi.’ That was the first time the word was ever mentioned. That’s when the spirit hit me. That was my given spiritual cultural name and it represented Africa.
“That’s when the transformation took place. I wasn’t an Indian anymore. Everything changed—my sewing changed. I didn’t sew no more like the Yellow Pocahontas. That was my blessing, the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi. It was the beginning of who I am right now. There was more to that first black suit in terms of what it meant not just to me but to the culture.”
Butterflies fluttering in a garden of flowers adorn Fi-Yi-Yi’s gorgeous suit that he will don this year. “What’s more beautiful than a butterfly?” he asks. “They are nature, beauty, compassion and love.” Harris is aided in creating his suits by Jack “Mr. Jack” Robinson who took over as master sewer at the passing of Harris’ longtime friend, Collins “Coach” Lewis. “He’s the master of all of the things that Coach did,” says Harris of Mr. Jack, who has been sewing for Fi-Yi-Yi for over 30 years. Surprisingly, when Mr. Jack first started beading, he had never picked up a needle and thread in his life and still has no desire to mask Indian.
When Harris begins to make a new suit he says he has “no idea what the hell I’ll do. I have to start first. I start with a circle and from that everything develops. I don’t draw out of a book. I create the work as it comes to my mind and eyes and I add on to what I do. I give Mr. Jack the freedom to do whatever he pleases. As long as we’re using the same material and colors, you can’t go wrong. Mr. Jack has the green light to sew what he wants to sew and make his own designs. I have that much trust in him. He’s that good.”
Since his emergence as Fi-Yi-Yi, Harris has utilized cowrie shells to adorn his suits to express his respect for the African culture and his love of the beauty of nature. He explains that cowrie shells are used in African nations as decorations and jewelry and have often been treated as currency. “They were like cash money,” he declares.
Fi-Yi-Yi and the Mandingo Warriors will hit the streets this year with somewhere between 15 and 20 members masking. His son, “Little” Victor, who will take over as the chief of the Mandingo Warriors next year, will be by his side. He describes his other son, Curtis, as a messenger and runner for the tribe. Curtis also purchased a building near the Musicians Village that will house Fi-Yi-Yi’s future Black Seeds of Culture Museum.
With tambourines ringing and drums beating, the tribe will emerge from Joan Rhodes’ house on Barracks Street, just around the corner from the Backstreet Cultural Museum. “That’s my headquarters—that’s definitely my camp,” Harris declares of the Backstreet. “I always believed in Sylvester [Sylvester Francis, the museum’s curator] because he believed in what he wanted to do. He calls me his chief—we are one.”
As Fi-Yi-Yi takes over the streets on Carnival Day, those who are faint of heart might want to stand clear of the always dramatic chief who has lots of fun ferociously running up to unsuspecting folks to give them a thrill. “I try to make people part of what I do,” Harris explains.
“You’ve got to have activity. You’ve got to keep a certain amount of fear of some kind in it. I go into people’s faces, look them in the eye and look ’em up and down like I’m sizing them up so they go home with a story to tell. I have fun with the children because they can’t see what I’m thinking. I’ll be laughing behind the mask but they don’t know that. You have to put a little bit of everything in it.”
When Fi-Yi-Yi and the Mandingo Warriors are nearing and the chant “Fire in the hole!” rings out, it stands as a warning that the tribe is on its way. “It means get the hell out the way—clear the area, something is going to explode,” Harris explains while laughing. “It’s our song—it lets them know who’s coming. We have our own songs, our own beat of the African drums. We get fired up.”
Victor Harris, the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, is an artist, a visionary who offers people joyful healing and possesses the special power of bringing folks together. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s my mission.”