A Pyrate Perspective
The thoughts and feelings of a Pirate Wiccan on Pagan issues and community.
A St. Joseph's Night Experience
Ayee cooty fiyo - hey la hey, hey la hey
I've got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won't bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear you call my Indian Red!
I had one of the most spiritual experiences you can have in New Orleans tonight; I walked for St. Joseph's night with a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. David Montana, nephew of the most famous Mardi Gras Indian Chief, Big Chief Tutti Montana, led the Washitaw nation in a nearly ten mile hike around the city.
Chief David Montana
Wearing hand beaded costumes depicting the White Buffalo, we walked from his home on the edge of Bayou St. John and the Treme all the way down to the Ninth Ward to St. Margaret's, a rest home where his sister currently lives. It was here that he invoked the spirit of the White Buffalo to heal the elders, and thanked them for all of the things that they have done for us. The Big Chief danced and sang specifically to his sister, singing about how much he loved her and how beautiful he thought she was. He finished by reciting a poem about Katrina and how strong we are now. We walked out singing "This Little Light of Mine", which I haven't thought of since I was young enough to still be actively going to Sunday school. There was no specific mention of God, but the words held more faith than any other public prayer I've ever heard spoken. And then we started back, singing and chanting and dancing the whole way. When we met up with other tribes, our dancing and singing became frantic to give as much energy to the tribe as we could. At the rest home, when Chief David spoke, the lights went out on us and only started to flicker back on as he headed out. I noticed this throughout the night.
Mardi Gras Indians are something that the tourists that come to New Orleans almost never see or hear about. While more well known today than ever before, the Mardi Gras Indians remain a localized tradition.
In the days of slavery and Jim Crow, African Americans in New Orleans were forbidden to march in Mardi Gras. So instead, black New Orleanians came up with their own Carnival traditions. Marching on Super Sunday, the Sunday before St. Joseph's day, the Mardi Gras Indians dress in elaborate suits and masks to pay homage to the Native Americans who sheltered runaway slaves. On St. Joseph's day itself, they march through their neighborhoods in their individual tribes, stopping to sing and dance at the homes of relatives and friends.
Each suit worn by an Indian is hand made. Usually about 100,000 hours of work goes into the making of each. A costume usually weighs about 100lbs and in the New Orleans heat, wearing one becomes a work in and of itself. At the end of the season, traditionally each costume is burned and the work starts all over again for the next year.
The front of Chief David's suit
Each "tribe" is made up of different neighborhood gangs; instead of fighting, the competition of who is "the prettiest" begins. While greatly toned down these days, there is still a great deal of tension and the possibility of violence between each "tribe". The tribes consist of a Big Chief, a Big Queen; a Spy Boy who leads the tribe away from hostile tribes; a Flag Boy that dances ahead to announce the arrival of the tribe and to let his tribe know that the other tribes they are coming near are either allies or enemies. A Wild Man clears the way for the Chief, and announces the tribe's presence. Sometimes meetings between tribes are friendly, sometimes they aren't and the crowd becomes quiet to see how it will end.
I also find this to be one of the most magical events in New Orleans. Mardi Gras Indian traditions are an amazing representation of the crossroads of culture that has come and mixed in New Orleans. Combining African drumming, American Indian costuming, Creole customs, French language and African American culture, the Mardi Gras Indians embody a special persona that characterizes New Orleans.
Front of Big Queen Rukia's suit, she said that her totem was the Monarch Butterfly and that the fairy was there to represent her spirit.
The Chief is the only one that knows where he is leading everyone; the rest follow their chief. By the end of the night, after having collected people as we went, we probably had at least 100 people walking with us. A friend of mine told me tonight that she had asked Chief David how he kept his stamina up while he was walking all these miles. Chief David told her that he doesn't feel tired when he walks, because the ancestors carry him.
I was definitely apart of something special tonight. The friend who brought us also told me that if I wanted to, when Chief David starts a new suit, I can come and help "sew the pretty". That would be an honor.
If you ever have the opportunity, come to New Orleans on St. Joseph's night. I promise you, you will have an experience like none other. The Mardi Gras Indians create a magic that you and I can only touch from the outside, but even that is pretty spectacular.
A video I took on Sunday of the Washitaw tribe singing and dancing "Indian Red"
Big Chief and his Big Queens
If you want to see more Mardi Gras Indians, check out Kenny Klein's personal blog (found here) about his experiences tonight!
All photography courtesy of Kenny Klein.
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