On the cusp of its Tri-Centennial Celebration, New Orleans, established as one of the largest ports of entry for African slaves into the Americas in the early 1700s, is the cradle for a unique culture born from African, European, and Native American influences.
Mardi Gras Indians
The "Mardi Gras Indians,” contemporarily regarded as Black Indian tribes of New Orleans, are the oldest cultural organizations surviving from the original African tribes which were brought into New Orleans during slavery days. Black Indians in New Orleans who “mask Indian” are part of a secret masquerade society. In traditional cultures around the world, masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies enacted to communicate with spirits and ancestors, frequently passed down within a family through many generations. Such an artist holds a respected position in tribal society because of the work that he or she creates, embodying not only complex craft techniques but also spiritual, social and symbolic knowledge. A spotlight has been focused on this culture like never before. The 2015 passing of music legend Big Chief Bo Dollis of New Orleans’ legendary musical group Wild Magnolias, honored recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts “National Heritage Award,” portrayals of Black Indians in television shows such as HBO’s “Treme,” and more recently in Beyoncé videos and in VOGUE Magazine, has vividly demonstrated the depth and inimitable qualities of Black Indian masquerade. There is an urgent need for discourse regarding the origins and significance of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, its cultural diasporic resonance, and ultimately, its role as one of America’s most unique “African” cultural art-forms.
African Cultural Retention
Through elaborate masking ritual, music and dance, the Black Indians of New Orleans have demonstrated significant African cultural retentions. This is the act of retaining the culture of Africans, away from the Continent, especially when there is reason to believe that the culture, through inaction, may be lost.
As an insider in the culture and a person descended from Native American ancestry, I have actively documented the tradition since 1997, and in 2003, I wrote a play entitled “Brotherhood in Congo Square,” which was a fictional treatment of the story of the 1729 Natchez Revolt, recounting the driving force of Native Americans and Africans, united against their French oppressors.
Over the years, my provocative findings clearly carry a common thread. The experiences related by culture bearers in the tradition exhibit the ability for Black Indians to transcend the physical into the spiritual realm during masking, channeling the energy and deeply embedded narrative of their ancestors. As a direct link to African masking, music, spirituality and rituals, maintained after three hundred years of cultural retention in America, “masking Indian” is a simultaneously historical and contemporary manifestation of “embodied memory”. Most important, masking as a Black Indian asserts a fierce and fervent expression of African roots, heritage and cultural resistance in New Orleans.
A Big Chief’s Legacy: Donald Harrison Sr.
On an overcast day in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward, Herreast Harrison reminisced about her husband Big Chief Donald Harrison’s family legacy as leader of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Guardians of the Flame, as well as his strong commitment to the community. After Hurricane Katrina, the family, assisted by Tulane University School of Architecture’s Tulane City Center project, built a museum to bolster the important cultural preservation work of the Guardians Institute. The museum is a small, modern building located adjacent from the Musicians Village, built after Katrina. There are several of Donald Harrison Sr. and Jr.’s suits in the museum, books, photographs, paintings and beadwork displayed, mostly containing African-inspired themes.
Big Chief Harrison and his family are particularly significant, because of the level of educational and cultural outreach they continue to perpetuate in his legacy. The Guardians Institute has distributed thousands of books to area school-children. It is no surprise that he and his Jazz musician son, saxophonist Donald Harrison, served as the model for the characters of Big Chief Lambreaux and his son in the recent HBO series “TREME”.
Herreast Harrison mostly spoke about her husband’s legacy as a Big Chief, the stories of socio-cultural context of his upbringing as a Creole man, as well as the inspiration he drew from African history in becoming a one-of-a-kind Black Indian leader in the Community.
“Because my husband was so in tune with this tradition, he basically put a lot of things that would have been very good for him in the background to do this. It was what he drew his strength from,” recounted Harrison. “We are living in a country where we gain visibility to perform in a manner that denoted that he was a leader, that he would have the power to maneuver, and manipulate and to live his life equal partners with anybody else of any nationality. It gave him the freedom to express himself and the strength to say, ‘I Won’t Bow Down’.”
Mardi Gras Indian tribes have been known to come out of their houses as feathered ”gods,” representing their neighborhoods on Mardi Gras Day and on other events such as “St. Joseph’s Night”. In the early days, there was internal “humbug,” what the Indians refer to as violence between tribes. Big Chief Tootie Montana eventually encouraged the street battle to evolve into a battle of artistic expression. A master at creating elaborate three-dimensional beaded and sequined suits, Montana’s subsequent inclusion in the Smithsonian Museum signaled a paradigm shift in the value and importance placed on an African-derived folk art tradition within a Western defined cultural institution.
Big Chief Harrison was also part of this new perception, being invited by master historian Robert Farris Thompson to Yale University to highlight the importance of the Mardi Gras Indian culture.
“Donald decided that he wanted to take the oldest known Chief at that time, living but not masking, Robert Robbie Lee.” Harrison explained that Lee was with one of the earliest documented Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans, the Creole Wild West, “ She recalled, “It was one of the things they talked about at Donald’s funeral, the fact that he lectured at Yale. They gave him the best accommodations, they flew first class. Limousines were waiting for them, and they treated them like celebrities.”
Big Chief Harrison’s love for reading and Jazz, along with educating young people about Black Indian culture permeated his life’s work until the very end. Harrison recounted the challenges of taking care of Big Chief while he was dying. As his condition worsened, Big Chief started to tell his life stories, and soon she was taping the stories to incorporate into a book. Further assisted by author Al Kennedy, Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians was published in 2010 after the Chief’s death, in tribute to his legacy. Harrison’s preservationist efforts and outreach to the young people in the Upper 9th Ward “village” is undying and never-ending. The story has far to go to truly unfold. “It’s still a secret society. There are aspects of this culture that no one will ever know, will ever get, will ever uncover….” Harrison is very sure about one thing; the Black Indians are carrying the torch for their African ancestors. “It comes from the heart, it comes from the memory,” she asserted. “It’s the DNA that is linking them to those people that were brought here and enslaved in America. It’s linking them to that masquerade that they did in each of their villages….it’s linking them to their cultural heritages.”
Robin Ligon-Williams is an award-winning curator, cultural producer, ethnomusicologist and inaugural Director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute at University of New Orleans. Having spent twenty years working intimately within the Mardi Gras Indian culture, this article is an excerpt from her 2016 Liberty University thesis project,” From Maroons to Mardi Gras: The Role of African Cultural Retention in the Development of the Black Indian Culture of New Orleans.”
Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo credit: Kathy Anderson/Times-Picayune
Ethnomusicologist Robin Ligon-Williams with Herreast Harrison at the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward. Photo credit: Maynard Eaton
Detail from African Inspired beadwork featured at the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum in New Orleans. Photo credit: Maynard Eaton