Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mardi Grad Indians

I just emailed somebody about whether the Indians masked in NO this year. Then it occurred to me to use Google. Found the below. I really respect the Times-Picayune now. Anderson Cooper has been gettnig all the credit for covering K-Trina, but the T-P has really been the responsible for the best reporting (so say I).


Indian tradition marches on in devastated neighborhoods
Spiritual songs embody resilience of city's tribes
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
By Trymaine Lee
Staff writer

In the heart of the Lower 9th Ward, in the now-lifeless streets of the neighborhood torn asunder, the sacred Mardi Gras Indian hymn "My Indian Red" wafted over the hallowed stomping ground of the Red Hawk Hunters on Tuesday.

Tambourines rattled, occasionally booming beneath the hands of tribesmen -- black men masked as Native American warriors -- who were draped in lavish greens, blues and whites. Their feathers and plumes danced and shook upon a backdrop of flood debris: crumbled homes, abandoned vehicles coated in the grime of receded floodwaters and the other assorted detritus Hurricane Katrina left in its wake.

Decimated primarily black neighborhoods in New Orleans were once home to hundreds of such warriors, but after Katrina, many are now far from their flooded homes and are unsure whether they'll ever return to the city, much less mask on Mardi Gras.

But in the Lower 9th Ward, Uptown and downtown around the Treme neighborhood Tuesday, Mardi Gras Indians from cross-city tribes made a clear statement: The back of the city's black tribal community is weary but not yet broken.

"God's people will always stand strong," said Nelson Burke, big chief of the Red Hawk Hunters. Nelson led his tribe in soulful chants and cries, surrounded by his spy boy, flag boy and wild man just yards from where the levee broke, causing the flooding that drowned so many.

Walk through history

The tribe's members masked harder than ever, one onlooker said Tuesday. And they danced in the footsteps of those who came before them. And they chanted, the sun bouncing from bejeweled patterns and story boards embroidered into their suits. The history in jeweled landscapes across their chests and backs, legs and arms told the tale of the "red man" fighting off the "white man" on his own land.

History teaches that black Mardi Gras Indians mask to honor the Native American communities that accepted runaway slaves into their tribes, said Cherice Nelson, Mardi Gras Indians historian and council queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe. They honor the people who never allowed the white man to enslave them. Long ago, Nelson said, white people wouldn't dare go onto Native American land to retrieve slaves.

"My Indian Red" and its hundred-year-old rhythms is more of a prayer than a song, a call and response pitched to God to ensure that those who mask as Indians on Mardi Gras return home safely, according to the Indians' history. In times long past, old scores were settled on Mardi Gras, man to man and often bloody.

But now the song means so much more, some said Tuesday. It embodies all that the Indians stand for, tribesmen said, all the past and present warriors who use the spirit of their African, Native American and African-American ancestors to see them through the tough times -- through the storms.

"After all Katrina destroyed, she couldn't destroy our spirit," said Ronald Young, spy boy for the Red Hawk Hunters. Like many Indians who lost everything they owned in the storm, including the materials they use to construct the suits they wear only once a year, Young didn't mask this Mardi Gras. He said he has too much on his plate. So he donated the supplies he was able to salvage to another tribesman so he could mask.

"That's the hardest part about it," Young said. "We work on the suits year round, and when we lost our homes, a lot of us lost everything in them. So it hurts."

Steeped in tradition

Downtown, along St. Bernard Avenue near North Villere Street, members of the Trouble Nation tribe gathered. Some sipped beers while others tweaked their suits or helped younger members hoist massive headdresses on their heads or shoulders.

They marched down North Villere, chanting the solemn words of "My Indian Red." The spy boy stepped blocks ahead of the flag boy and chief, keeping a keen eye out for any other tribes in the neighborhood. There was none in sight. But three blocks over, members of an almost totally unmasked tribe, the Creole Osceolas of the flooded Gentilly neighborhood, marched to their drummers' beat wearing T-shirts proclaiming what tribe they represent.

"We wanted to show our presence," said Creole Osceolas Big Chief Clarence Dalcour. Tuesday was the first Mardi Gras in more than 36 years that he didn't mask. While the future is unclear about how black New Orleans will be reshaped in its post-Katrina social landscape, Dalcour said the people and their traditions are resilient enough to be maintained if not recast.

"Though so many of us lost so much, it means a lot to be able to continue this legacy. The black culture is a creative culture, and it's here to stay," he said.

Uptown, at the corner of Washington Avenue and South Saratoga Street, tradition continued as members of the Creole Wildwest honored the big chief of another tribe, the venerable Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias. The Creole Wildwest spy boy, dressed in a suit of turquoise feathers, with red and yellow gems dashed throughout, cleared a path through a small crowd that had gathered around longtime Big Chief Dollis. The spy boy led the way for the Creole Wildwest's Big Chief Walter Cook Jr., introducing the two patriarchs in a commanding voice that silenced the crowd of about 30 onlookers.

"Big chief of the Wild Magnolias," the spy boy's voice boomed. "Big chief of the Creole Wildwest. . . . Old-time chief," the spy boy said, pointing toward Dollis. Dollis sat smiling. His perfectly white grin and matching suit welcomed the younger chief. They shook hands, Dollis never leaving his post. Cook bowed slightly, speaking to the elder official in a tone just above a whisper, then quickly walking away with his spy boy.

"Everybody here needs us to be here," said Queen Rita, Dollis' wife and queen of the Wild Magnolias. "It's what you call tradition. And like those two chiefs meeting here, and one honoring his elder, it's tradition."

. . . . . . .

Trymaine Lee can be reached tlee@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3301.

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