Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Photo: Noé Cugny

Interview: Big Chief Monk Boudreaux On Being First Honoree For Joy Theater Honors

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who first rose to prominence as a member of the Wild Magnolias in the 1960s, will be honored by the Joy Theater this Friday, October 6. The Mardi Gras Indian leader of the Golden Eagles is the theater’s inaugural honoree in its Joy Theater Honors series and is being singled out not only for his personal work in promoting local culture, but also his role in the award-winning Aaron Walker documentary, Bury the Hatchet.

“It was an honor,” Boudreaux tells OffBeat about learning of his forthcoming recognition from the theater, which opened 70 years ago. “Don’t just anybody get that.” Just last year, he was one of the recipients of National Endowment for the Arts’ 2016 National Heritage Fellowship.

Though humble and gracious,  Big Chief acknowledges the important work he’s done in a decades-long career preserving the history of Mardi Gras Indians. “I’ve been a leader for quite a while, and I teach kids. To be a leader, you have to be strong and powerful because everybody won’t agree with you. You gotta know what being a leader is all about,” he says. As an educator, he mentors children in his own family and of the extended community, in whom he hopes to instill foundational advice for any future leader: “Make sure whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it from your heart and you’re doing it right.”

Bury the Hatchet director Aaron Walker, whose vision helped earn the film the Best Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival and the Grand Prize and Intangible Culture Award at the Royal Anthropological Institute Festival of Ethnographic Film, credits serendipity with its resonant legacy. Documenting Mardi Gras Indian culture in the five years following Hurricane Katrina, Walker tells OffBeat “It captured a slice of time when that culture had a certain vitality. So much of that culture was able to come through at that time when a lot of forces were coming up against it.”

But it was Big Chief Monk Boudreaux who really made the film what it is. Says Walker, “The film was just going to be a short profile piece on him, but he let me into his world, which he didn’t have to do…I really love Monk dearly. He’s such a warm, good human. As time goes on, I just realize what a special being he is. Very profound, and his heart is so deep and so warm.  To me, he’s a wise  He was so very calm through the whole storm and all the things that happened.”

Walker also shared his feelings about Royce Osborn, the late filmmaker whose documentary All on a Mardi Gras Day also covered Mardi Gras traditions in black communities. “Royce is another one of those people who has the same kind of air and warmth that Monk has. It’s just something you don’t find in humans very often and it’s so just valuable, especially with what we have in the world today.”

Ahead of Friday’s event, the inaugural honoree is thankful that what was once an underrepresented piece of history is now enjoying worldwide recognition. “We’ve been here forever, and for a long time it was a hidden culture. Now it’s out to the whole world. People wanna know about us because they don’t know where we come from,” says the Big Chief. Moving forward, he’s eager to extend Mardi Gras Indian culture’s reach, both abroad and right here at home. “Continue working with us, and we’re gonna find out more and more about us that we don’t know ourselves.”

The October 6 event will include a documentary screening of Bury the Hatchet. WWOZ DJ Soul Stu will act as host for the event, and will join Big Chief and Walker for a Q&A panel directly following the screening. The night will be capped off by a performance featuring Monk and renowned special guests Johnny Vidacovich and Johnny Sansone. Tickets are available here.