Chief of Chiefs and the Mardi Gras Indians: Art Trumps Violence

Interior view of a room with a rotunda ceiling during an auction of slaves, artwork and goods. https://www.npr.org/2015/07/18/423803204/remembering-new-orleans-overlooked-ties-to-slavery

Imagine this: generations ago, your ancestors were bought and sold into slavery and sent to a new world, a new world where all memories of the past were forcibly erased.

Your names, your Gods, your stories, your songs

Your Identity…

All replaced with the names, Gods, stories and songs of your masters.

Were your old ways better?

You will never know, unless you make a radical decision:

A decision to reclaim, to rebuild, to revision.

But where do you start?

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For some run-away slaves, deliverance came by way of indigenous Native Americans tribes who took them in. In this manner, something new emerged.

Black Americans who found cultural identity in aspects of indigenous ritual culture.

Of course, given the creolized nature of this cultural transaction, other elements would slip in as well.

No where would this be more apparent than in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Specifically, during Mardi Gras.

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Mardi = Tuesday (French).

Gras = Fat (French);

Hence Mardi Gras is literally Tuesday Fat, or as we call it, Fat Tuesday.

Why? Well, traditionally, the festival of Carnival (literally, of the Flesh (Carne=meat (Latin), hence In-carnation, to be made Flesh)) leads up to the Lent season of sacrifice.

Mardi Gras is in a sense the storm before the quiet, the orgiastic scream that is followed by a deathly silence.

Better make it a good one.

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Any mass ritual with as many participants as Carnival is going to bear witness to eruptions of sex and violence.

Given that masking is common during Mardi Gras, there has always been a certain level of anonymity that lends itself to aggression, not to mention retribution.

This was definitely true of the masked tribes known as the Mardi Gras Indians, or sometimes as Black Indians.

Dressed in huge regalia, these troops have a hierarchy that is reflected in their physical formations.

First, there are plain clothed informants who walk a few blocks ahead of the procession, keeping an eye out for trouble, be it in the form of other tribes or the New Orleans Polics Department.

These are followed by ‘spyboys’, who are dressed lightly, providing them mobility in case of a skirmish.

Next is the ‘first flag’, an ornately dressed standard bearer for the tribe’s flag.

Behind this is the ‘Big Chief’, flanked by his ‘Wildman’, who brandishes a symbolic weapon.

All around are clusters of percussionists and revelers.

As they march, the ‘Big Chief’ decides what course they will take.

This, of course, effects who the tribe will cross paths with.

So, what happens when tribes collide?

In the old days, not much good.

https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/music/history-and-traditions/mardi-gras-indians/

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Things changed in the 1960s, in no small part due to the efforts of Allison ‘Tootie’ Montana, the ‘Chief of Chiefs’. He wanted to transform rage into art.

To quote the Chief, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.”

And strangely enough…it worked.

So now, these industrious men spend much of their free time during the year designing their costumes.

How ornate are these suits?

Well, they typically cost thousands of dollars, and can easily weigh over a hundred pounds.

Darryl Montana, Allison’s son, states that his suits cost around $5,000 in materials, which can include up to 300 yards of down feather trimming, and countless beads.

The end result: instead of fighting, when tribes collide, the Chiefs start peacocking, insulting each other’s suits, bragging about who has the prettiest.

And once again, it works.

In 1982 Tootie stated “Now, people run to the Mardi Gras Indians; back in the day, people would run from them”.

For his work in transforming the nature of the Mardi Gras Indians, Montana received the 1987 National Heritage Fellowship from the the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States government’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

At the age of 78, Tootie was the oldest continuously masking Mardi Gras Indian. In 1995 he stated, “I am the oldest, I am the best, and I am the prettiest”. Between 1947 and 2005, Montanta only missed one Mardi Gras,

Talk about sowing sewing the seeds of love…

Statue of Allison Montana by Sheleen Jones-Adenle (2010) in Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans.

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The Take-away:

One person can change the world, but it requires a leap of faith:

From our youth, we’ve been taught that Violence Trumps Everything.

What Allison Montana’s life show us a deeper truth:

Art Trumps Violence.

Fin…

[and a final thought: if any of this intrigues you, there is a documentary on the subject called Bury the Hatchet (2010) by Aaron Walker (available for streaming on Kanopy; requires library card to access)]

‘Gangflag Irving (Honey) Bannister, Creole Wild West, 2000’ | © J Nash Porter / Joyce Marie Jackson. From theculturetrip.com

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