Late in the afternoon on the final day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the six-day music event that everyone here calls Jazz Fest, red-, fuchsia- and purple-necked revelers in straw hats and baseball caps wandered between Steely Dan on the Acura Stage, the Greater Antioch Full Gospel Choir in the AIG Gospel tent and the Natchitoches meat pie stand. In the middle of this cultural smorgasbord, they were treated to a genuine embodiment of New Orleans vernacular street culture in the form of a parade by a Mardi Gras Indian Gang, the Black Feathers.
The parade started right on schedule, at 3 pm, next to the outdoor showroom tent in which shiny new Acuras were parked to attract passersby, beneath the big blue open sky above the New Orleans Fairgrounds, and framed against the city skyline in the distance, which, viewed closer, still bore the scars of Hurricane Katrina in the form of stories upon stories of broken windows in downtown office buildings and hotels. The gang strutted their stuff in elaborately sewn suits made of brightly colored beads and feathers covering them from head to toe. The first was all in green, with a large, sequinned fishtail sewn to his back. Then another, all in white, with careful embroideries of heroic deeds of Native Americans on his stomach and chest. Then the “Big Queen” in pink, came chanting and dancing down a paved path, lined on either side by people awed by this vision, to the rhythm of tambourines and drums.
Wanting a bit of this beauty, people asked the Indians if they would pose for pictures, and took home photos of themselves in shorts and T-shirts with a black man covered in a thousand beads sewn over the course of a year in a tradition that he likely learned from his father or uncle, or with the “flag boy,” with sweat pouring down a proud face framed in orange, with the gang’s beaded mantle, spelling out “7th Ward Gang Flag.”
Indeed, while many people paid $45 a day to come to Jazz Fest this year to see ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, New Edition (less Bobby Brown, sadly) or Rod Stewart, the soul of Jazz Fest, the thing that you can’t find just anywhere, is the distinct music and culture of this city, which is why the logo of the whole damn thing is four dancers with umbrellas and handkerchiefs doing a Second Line, the distinctive dance of the New Orleans streets. Though I think that Jazz Fest is swell–I go to as much as I can every year–and gives visitors access to living forms of American folk culture, it feels far from the Seventh Ward, the shotgun homes and Creole cottages of the Indians and St. Augustine Catholic Church, in the heart of the Treme neighborhood, where Big Chief Tootie Montana, the “Chief of the Chiefs,” was laid to rest two months before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, wearing a suit and tie but framed between two of his elaborate Indian suits.
Like many things in New Orleans, the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians aren’t crystal clear. Some say that the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians began 120 years ago, with black New Orleanians creating full Indian regalia based on pictures and Wild West shows that they had seen. Their rituals honor the role Native Americans played in helping slaves escape and elude bounty hunters, celebrating a historic sense of common cause between black New Orleanians and Native Americans. That tradition has remained alive in some of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods at parades on the high holidays of Mardi Gras Indian culture. They include St. Joseph’s Day, which comes every year on March 19; Mardi Gras, the day before the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday; and “Super Sunday,” a sort of Mardi Gras Indian Christmas, which occurs in late spring and is observed on different days by Mardi Gras Indians depending on whether they live in Uptown or Downtown neighborhoods. According to James Trask, a “spyboy” in the Red Hawk Hunters, whom I talked to in the hot sun of the Seventh Ward Festival, an arts and cultural event that occurred on a late spring weekend in a mostly black, poor, but proud old Creole enclave, the tradition is passed on within families and neighborhoods. “I learned to sew from my dad, the Big Chief of the Ninth Ward Flaming Arrows. It goes generation to generation; we pass it on,” he explained to me, before showing off his elaborate blue suit, which had taken him months to make, spending five hours a day after getting off work at Catholic Charities.
He told me, with evident satisfaction, that his 4-year-old son was also an Indian, to whom he was passing down the beading and sewing art and with whom he would take to the streets on the downtown Super Sunday the following weekend. Ronald Baham, known as Big Chief Buck, the Chief of the Seventh Ward Warriors, had invited the Red Hawk Hunters to this “first annual” festival put on by the Seventh Ward Porch. The Porch is an organization committed to fostering the cultural life unique to this neighborhood. It seeks to do this by advocating for the community from which culture arises and by creating a space where people can come together and where children can learn about their neighborhood and the world beyond it.
When I spoke with him there, Big Chief Buck seemed disappointed that his gang couldn’t perform for his neighbors, since many in the Seventh Ward Warriors hadn’t yet managed to return to the neighborhood and some, him included, had come home after Katrina to decades of suits–twenty-two in his case–in a musty clump of waterlogged beads and feathers. He promised they would be singing and dancing on these streets by Mardi Gras.
In addition to the time it takes to make these suits, Big Chief Buck estimated that each one cost more than $5,000 to make, explaining, “How pretty you wanna be? That’s how much you will spend.” And this money comes out of his own pocket because, though the city’s airport, hotels, convention center and restaurants are adorned with photos of Mardi Gras Indians and the $5 billion annual tourist industry uses these cultural icons to keep people coming here, the individuals buying the beads and pricking their thumbs with needles receive very little support from the city or the tourist industry. As Big Chief Buck explained, “Everybody makes money off the Mardi Gras Indians but the Indians.”
A similar dynamic appears at all corners in the world of New Orleans street culture–from musicians who play New Orleans jazz music, to Second Line groups, to Mardi Gras Indians–where there is a sense that the city and its tourism business have exploited neighborhood culture while offering little to keep it alive. Even the most high-profile effort to date to provide housing for New Orleans musicians, the Habitat for Humanity New Orleans Musicians Village, for which Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have raised millions, and at which every passing politico–from George Bush to Barack Obama–have hammered nails, has been roundly criticized by many of the intended beneficiaries.
It turns out that many of the musicians and cultural ambassadors of our city have lousy credit (because, of course, they are neither compensated nor valued for the enormous economic contribution that they make to the city) and don’t qualify for Habitat for Humanity loans. To this Marsalis and Connick responded defensively with the patronizing old saws of charity work, employing the condescending “give a man a fish…teach a man to fish” platitude.
Because New Orleans culture has survived for so long without anyone’s free fish, however, it seems likely that even the bruising New Orleans post-Katrina housing crunch will not do it in. The genuine antagonism for Second Line groups and Mardi Gras Indians shown by police is a much more discouraging and troubling sign of the lack of appreciation for street culture. In fact, the passing of Tootie Montana was no doubt hastened by the conflict that the 82-year-old chief of chiefs had with police on St. Joseph’s night, a night marked by well-documented instances of police brutality against Indians and about which the chief addressed the city council before expiring at the podium.
More recently, New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs, the groups that throw Second Lines, sued the Police Department for assigning arbitrary and prohibitively expensive fees to escort these parades. Fortunately, with the threat of litigation supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, New Orleans civil rights attorneys Carol Kolinchak and Katie Schwartzmann were able to get the city to relent and provide more reasonable fees for the street parades that it profits from in mock-form in the touristy areas of the French Quarter and at big business conventions.
Helen Regis, a cultural anthropologist at Louisiana State University, an expert in New Orleans Second Line culture, and one of the organizers of the Seventh Ward Festival, explained the possible pernicious effects of suppressing New Orleans’s street culture in a 1999 essay published in the journal Cultural Anthropology.
This minstrel-like appropriation of black cultural tradition by the city’s elites and tourist industry goes without any acknowledgment of the black popular tradition on which it is based…. What is erased by these representations is the experiential meaning…for the performers themselves–their agency, their deployment of received cultural forms in new and innovative ways, which revise and recast tradition to speak to the concerns and experiences of participants and their communities. As with turn of the century minstrel shows, predominantly white audiences do not know precisely what it is that the staged shows are reproducing and thus cannot be aware of the significant differences between them and the community based parades.
This is all to say that New Orleans culture is specific to its place in the world, just as creating human castles is wedded to the towns of Catalonia and as sand paintings are to the Hopi and Navajo. And while we can enjoy and appreciate it when it is presented to us, we need to be mindful of the fact that it is the expression of a neighborhood or a community, not merely a performance that we can pay to see.
Willie Birch, a prominent black New Orleans artist who grew up in the Magnolia Housing Project, whose work now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and who was one of the driving forces behind creating the Porch, believes passionately in this culture, explaining, “Art is a means of transforming communities.”
He emphasizes the reciprocal process in which artists “are fed by the communities that they live in.” For this reason, he questions the very basis of an idea like the Musician’s Village as a means of supporting New Orleans culture as it removes artists from neighborhoods, rendering both poorer and less vital. He is put off by those who attempt to exploit this culture but is bullish on its future, explaining, “Jazz Fest could not exist without this, but we could exist without Jazz Fest.” He continued, “It’s our goal to keep this culture alive, and it is living, it’s not a museum.” As proof, he pointed to a throng of young neighborhood children surrounding Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians, covered in African-style beadwork including a massive headdress that covered his face. (Both the African pattern and the closed headdress mark innovations in the evolution of Mardi Gras Indian culture.) Little girls hugged the legs of this masked giant as though he were Mickey or Pluto at Disney World and begged him to let them try on his heavy, and somewhat frightening, mask. Birch observed that this culture cannot be supported without supporting the community from which it comes, telling me that Victor lived right around the corner, “See, this is about the community, not the individual. And this can create cultural leaders out of these kids.”
Cultural leadership was far from the mind of the small black girl who finally prevailed and got to wear the mask of Fi Yi Yi but its realization seemed almost inevitable. Because if you could, if you knew it was available to you, if you came from this struggling but dynamic neighborhood, if it was yours, who could turn this down? Who wouldn’t want to be an Indian Chief or Queen, or play snare in the hottest band in New Orleans, to the joy of people from all over the world, but more important, to your friends and neighbors?