Feathers in Motion

A member of the Golden Blades Mardi Gras Indian Tribe

By Owen Richfield

On a crisp, clear Mardi Gras morning, New Orleans has already begun its dance. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade trundles down Jackson and St. Charles, hurling coconuts and plastic spears. On Claiborne, floats and trucks ready for the parades like colorful ships in the locks, and in neighborhoods around the city, the Mardi Gras Indians begin their song. 

Mightaaay cooty fie ohhh,

Eey iii aaayyy!

Eey iii aaayyy!

African-American men and women emerge from the back of a U-Haul truck, singing as they don handcrafted, intricately-beaded and feathered suits, piece by piece. Above the din of the calling of the crowd around them, their voices rise with accompaniment by tambourine and bass drum. Assembling their tribe with all members in their roles – spy boy, flag boy, wild man, and big chief – the tribe heads down their street, spectators in their wake. As traffic stops, the crowd parts to make way for them. There is no mistaking: the street belongs to the Indians.

“They control their own destiny,” as Sabrina Montana, wife of Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Darryl Montana, so aptly puts it.

The practice of The Black Mardi Gras Indian traditions of masking, dancing and chanting date back over 100 years. The first Mardi Gras Indian tribe, called the Creole Wild West, was established in the late 1800s. However, the Code Noir, the set of laws for Black slaves in New Orleans enacted by Governor Bienville in 1724, specifically forbade the wearing of feathers by slaves, implying that these practices’ history reaches long before the creation of individual Tribes. In these early days, African-American communities used masking as Indians as a form of protest against discriminatory practices of the majority White Mardi Gras Krewes, who excluded Black people from the celebrations on Mardi Gras. This exclusion led to the separation of Mardi Gras into “Black Carnival” and “White Carnival,” both of which were celebrated very differently.

“I remember when I was a child… we couldn’t go to Canal Street,” Cheyenne Hunters Big Chief Al Womble said in an interview with Joshua Bee Alafia. “We couldn’t go to Bourbon Street to watch the parades.”

In response, the African-American communities of the late 1800s took ownership of their urban territories by wearing headdresses and feathered suits reminiscent of the Native American tribes as seen in the “Buffalo Bill” films of that time.

In addition to protesting discrimination against their communities, African-Americans used Fat Tuesday as a time for score settling between rival gangs. Violence often ensued, ending in bloodshed and death on both sides. This was the case until Allison “Tootie” Montana, late Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe and Big Chief Darryl Montana’s father, redefined competition between the tribes as a war of sewing.

“I’m the one who changed it from fighting with guns to fighting with suits. Everybody in the city, even the rag men, in their mind they think they can outdo me. They be sewing to beat me and they get fooled every time,” said Tootie in an essay by Kalamu Ya Salam (author and friend of the Montana family). Tootie’s push to have tribes base their worth on “prettiness” began in the early 1960s, says Darryl: “It was at Longshoreman hall on Claiborne off of Washington Avenue. On St. Joseph’s night they would have a contest… My daddy was always known for his sewing, for being pretty.”

Tootie used his innovative sewing to create the three-dimensional pieces whose design is heavily guarded within the tribe. “If people have masked in the Yellow Pocahontas, there’s a style, and they won’t share it with anybody else,” says Sabrina.

“I don’t change,” Darryl says. “I practice the same principles as my daddy. I don’t change.” With pride in her husband and her tribe, Sabrina says: “Other tribes will look at pictures and they’ll take a design but they haven’t learned to do the patterns that Darryl does.”

These three-dimensional pieces are constructed using special sewing techniques to manipulate cardboard into themed pieces that define the suit-making of Downtown Indians. Just as the Mardi Gras Indian Nations use their craft and culture to distinguish themselves amongst other performers at Mardi Gras, so too do tribes between themselves. Perhaps the greatest cultural difference among the Mardi Gras Indians is the gap between Uptown Indians and Downtown Indians.

Uptown Indians focus their beadwork on creating intricate pastoral scenes of Native Americans while Downtown Indians mainly use abstract shapes. The differences between Uptown and Downtown Indian tribes run deeper than suit design, though. Uptown tribes like Wild Magnolias and Golden Blades use their suits and dances to pay homage to the Native American tribes who sheltered escaped slaves. Downtown tribes such as Yellow Pocahontas and Fi Yi Yi use feathers and beadwork to resonate with the African and Caribbean histories of the African-American communities of New Orleans. These differing beliefs between Uptown and Downtown Indian Nations demonstrate the controversial nature of Mardi Gras Indian history as a whole; depending on who you hear it from, the story of the Mardi Gras Indians may sound different.

“You know what they say, ‘history is his story,’” Darryl smiles. “Everybody’s got their own history.”

Tribal differences extend far beyond history and beliefs. Though Tootie’s philosophy decreased the violence between tribes, rivalries remained. “There were a lot of other Indians there, and Tootie’s eyes were looking over what everybody was doing there,” says Beverley Trask, dance teacher at Tulane and friend of the Montanas speaking on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Tootie’s suit-making held at the New Orleans Museum of Art. “He was a crusty guy. You didn’t want to cross him.”

Beyond Tootie’s distrust of the other tribes, numerous accounts of injustices against him and his tribe by predominantly White organizations in New Orleans made a lasting impression on him. Trask recounts an encounter she had with Sabrina whentrying to get Tootie to autograph a photo book of him.

“Tootie’s picture is on the front and I had it in my arms and Sabrina said ‘don’t let Tootie see that’ and I said ‘why?’ and she said ‘he never got paid for that. He never even got a copy of the book.’”

In contrast to 10 years ago when Mardi Gras Indians were arrested for their processions in the streets on St. Joseph’s day, a new form of discrimination against the Mardi Gras Indian Nations is taking place. This time, instead of guns, the weapons of discrimination are calendars, commercials, and copyrights. Mardi Gras Indian culture, never meant to turn a profit, is now used in image for tourism. Despite the popularization of the Mardi Gras Indian culture in New Orleans advertisements, none of the revenue flows back to the Mardi Gras Indian Nations. These injustices have sparked the formation of the Black Mardi Gras Indian Co-Op, a multi-tribe organization meant to pursue economic empowerment and equity for the Mardi Gras Indian Nations. Spanning tribes from Uptown and Downtown, the Black Mardi Gras Indian Co-Op represents a huge step forward in the tribes’ effort to form a cohesive community that can control the use of its image and culture in New Orleans.

In his home in New Orleans East, Darryl Montana opens the door of his garage to reveal a brightly-colored lavender crown of his famous “Circle Dance” suit dedicated to the world-renowned New Orleans sculptor John Scott. “I restored it by way of the co-op.” One part of the co-op works in preserving the suits of Mardi Gras Indians, which are made over a year but are only worn on Mardi Gras Day, Super Sunday and St. Joseph’s Night. Though the suits are undoubtedly beautiful, Darryl says: “I don’t have no room.” The Black Mardi Gras Indian Co-Op seeks to put old suits to use for the Nation by restoring them and providing safe, reliable avenues for sale. “We were talking about having [the suit] go inside the Four Seasons Hotel where the International Trade Market is.”

In addition to actual sale of the suits, the Black Mardi Gras Indian Co-Op supports exhibitions of the suits as art pieces in the US and internationally. Since his first year as Big Chief, Darryl has shown his suits in major museums in Santa Fe, Los Angeles and the UK, and continues to pursue new opportunities. “We will be doing an exhibit at the University of Iowa; they’re talking about buying some of them,” he says with a grin.

Mardi Gras Indian Tribes seek to educate members of the New Orleans community on their culture and practices. In 1997, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Tootie Montana’s role as Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, Trask dedicated an African Cultural Arts Festival to Tootie, and facilitated a dance activity where students and members of the community learned the roles of the different members of the tribe (Spy Boy; the tribe scout, Flag Boy; waver of the tribe banner, the list goes on) through dance.

Ms. Trask says: “It was really as far as I know the first time this had been done where we divided up the participants and some of them were Spy Boys and some were Flag Boys and that kind of thing. They had never done that before. It was very special.” Throughout the entire process, Tootie was highly involved. After learning how Tootie had been taken advantage of in the past, Trask “always made certain he was paid” for their work together.

There is no doubt that the Mardi Gras Indian tribal identity has undergone major shifts since the practices and culture of Mardi Gras Indians began. With a violent past, key figures in Yellow Pocahontas and other Mardi Gras Indian Tribes have pushed for Mardi Gras Indian Nations to overcome their differences and protect their rights as artists. As their image is exploited for the gain of the tourism industry, the Mardi Gras Indians continue to face obstacles; however, there is no doubt that they are up to the challenge. Just as they say in their iconic song Indian Red, “we won’t kneel down.”

Owen Richfield is a senior majoring in mathematics at Tulane University.