This story is presented in partnership between Narratively and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
For more than 100 years, black New Orleanians have “masked Indian,” walking through the city’s streets dressed in feathers, beads, and intricate jewels, shouting chants and rattling tambourines. These Mardi Gras Indians’ hand-sewn suits and headdresses are massive and elaborate creations crafted in tribute to Native American and African aesthetics. They can take up to a full year to make.
In 1998, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians, her mother, Herreast Harrison, and Dr. Roslyn Smith, the principal at the elementary school where Harrison-Nelson taught at the time, cofounded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame to preserve and celebrate Mardi Gras Indian culture. Their efforts include annual awards honoring prominent Indians for community work, for musical accomplishments, and for carrying the tradition forward.
“Prior honorees would vote,” Harrison-Nelson said. “And they never picked a woman. So I decided, since I’m curator, I’ll honor women.” The Queen’s Choice award was introduced in 2005.
The Guardians of the Flame are one of dozens of gangs, or tribes, of Mardi Gras Indians. Led by the Big Chief, groups such as the Yellow Pocahontas, the Mohawk Hunters and the Creole Wild West parade on holidays, such as Mardi Gras, the Catholic holiday St. Joseph’s night and “Super Sunday” in mid-March.
HBO’s dramatic series “Treme,” which was set in post-Katrina New Orleans and had its finale in December, was perhaps the most accurate of what has been very few portrayals of Mardi Gras Indians in popular culture. Harrison-Nelson and her brother served as consultants. Even then, however, the focus was on the black male’s role in Mardi Gras Indian culture.
In his survey of New Orleans music and culture “Up From the Cradle of Jazz,” Jason Berry notes, “Although the Indians are a preponderantly male tradition, many women have masked and marched with tribes over the years. They are known as Queens and usually occupy an ancillary spot by virtue of their relationship with the Big Chief.” (That ancillary role is underscored in the book, first published in 1986; although several photographs of Indians appear, no women are identified by name, and a photo of the Harrison family in their Indian suits only includes Donald Sr., Donald Jr. and Brian Nelson, Cherice’s son, masking as a small boy.)
“When my son was born, my father would sing to him in his ear—‘Look at my little chief, my little chief,’” Harrison-Nelson said of her father, the late, legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. Her brother is the renowned musician and chief Donald Harrison Jr.
The first time she asked her father if she could mask with him, he turned her down. So she hit the streets as second queen with another respected chief, Joe Jenkins. She joined her father the following year as Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame, the last of four tribes he led before his death in 1998.
“So I asked my daddy, ‘O.K., now that I’m the big queen, what’s my job?’ And he said, ‘You’re a mere embellishment. Mere.’ He went on to clarify: ‘If a chief is pretty, he’s prettier with a queen. Your function is to make me prettier. And I’ve heard younger chiefs say, the queen is an accessory for the chief.’”
Big chief; first, second, third chief; spy boy; flag boy; wild man: Indian gangs offer many roles to play. All but queen, however, are traditionally filled by males.
There have been a few exceptions. In a 1975 interview with The Times-Picayune, Big Chief Paul Longpre of the Golden Blades—who had then been masking for fifty-one years—said that in the ’20s, Big Chief Daniel Lambert of the Wild Squat Toulas had placed his sister Amelia as spy girl. The Guardians of the Flame have had Karen-kaia Livers mask in the role of the Wild Man, or in her case as “Wild Woman Kahina.” Livers, as a music casting director for HBO’s “Treme,” cast most of the show’s Mardi Gras Indians.
Littdell Banister, the tribal queen of the Creole Wild West, joined the gang in 1972 to parade with her son, Irving “Honey” Banister Jr., who had been asked to be chief scout. She began as a squaw, a role that seems less widely used today. After more than forty years of masking, Banister, who claims Choctaw ancestry on her great-grandmother’s side, has absorbed her role: even in jeans and a blouse in the dining room of her Treme home, she carries herself fiercely, and regally. And Banister is strictly traditional: Her suits display Native American imagery, and she does not hold with women as anything but queens.
“Read the Indian books,” she said. “They don’t have none of that. They were queens and princesses, if you’re going traditional, like it’s supposed to go. And I hope older Indians will pass it down to them and let them know.”
Rita Dollis, Big Queen of the Wild Magnolias, also began masking as a family affair. Her husband is the legendary Bo Dollis, a chief since his teens; he helped to bring awareness of Indian culture nationwide, via the Wild Magnolias’ groundbreaking early-’70s funk recordings with Willie Tee, Earl Turbinton, Snooks Eaglin and other crack New Orleans musicians. Rita learned to sew on her husband’s suits while they were dating, and later, she made suits for their son Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis, who is now Big Chief.
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“Gerard started masking around age seven,” she said. “So about two years after that I said, ‘I think I would like to try that, and see how it feels to put one on.’ I had helped sew, but never put one on.
“I made my suit and I wore it and it felt so royal. The royal-ness was unbelievable. The respect that queens get is unbelievable. And from that time I never stopped. That was about twenty-two years ago. It’s a wonderful feeling to wear it.”
Dollis also is a traditionalist.
“A lot of younger gangs that’s coming out right now don’t really know, they’re naming things that’s not even in the tradition,” she said. “If you hear that ‘wild queen,’ ‘spy girl’—that’s something they just made up.”
But that doesn’t mean, she said, that the queen is—as Harrison-Nelson’s father said—a “mere embellishment.”
“We play a big, big role in gangs,” she said. “Queens keep the peace, they keep the respect.”
Indians were once considered dangerous; when gangs met during their rounds in the street, bloody physical fights would ensue. Today, the meetings are more peaceful, and customary Indian meeting spots on Mardi Gras, such as the corner of Second and Dryades streets in Uptown New Orleans, or Claiborne Avenue at Orleans under the I-10 overpass, draw hundreds of spectators who wait to see the tribes meet and dance. They use the word “pretty” to describe the extraordinary suits, and the confrontations are contests to see who is prettiest.
Most Indians credit the trend of peace to the diplomatic efforts of the legendary Chief of Chiefs Allison “Tootie” Montana, who died of heart failure on the floor of the New Orleans City Council in 2005, where he was arguing for better treatment of the Indians by the city’s police, with whom their relationship had always been uneasy.
Gina Montana began masking in 1995 as queen to her second cousin, Chief Tootie Montana, who masked as a Big Chief for more than fifty years.
“When I’m out masking, that’s a big part of the role for the big queen, to say, ‘Look at my chief.’ I’m not saying ‘I’m the big queen’ so much or how pretty I am, I’m saying ‘look at my chief,’ because I’ve got the chief that all the other tribes would want. So I’m there saying ‘look at my big chief, this is my tribe, we pretty’; and not just the chief, but ‘look at my flag, look at my spy.’ So the queen does a lot of that. That’s her role.
“But for me, this is just how I feel, is that the queen is also like a protectress—peace and protection for the tribe.” The queen will communicate the chief’s directions through the tribe, she said; she’ll keep confrontations with other gangs peaceful and orderly, and help hold the gang together in the street.
“So the queen’s role I think is multifaceted, multidimensional,” she said. “You got to sew your own suit, you got to dance, you got to sing, you got to cover your position. But also to be there—the queen has the chief’s back when all else fails, so there’s a lot of different stuff going on with the queen.”
Barbara Sparks, the former Big Queen of the Yellow Jackets, passed away in 2008. According to Harrison-Nelson, she was one queen who quietly wielded her power within the tradition.
“She might have been the first [queen] to wear a full headdress, a full crown,” Harrison-Nelson said. Sparks, the first recipient of the Queen’s Choice award, always wore lipstick when she masked, she said, and cut the skirts of her suit in a distinctive way at the behest of her husband, Big Chief Thomas Sparks, so she would not be mistaken for a man. One year, when her husband was ill, she led their gang herself on Mardi Gras morning.
Barbara Sparks had masked with the Yellow Jackets, as well as with other tribes, for more than forty years. Admired as a queen of queens for her longevity and her kind personality, at her funeral Sparks’ casket was attended by a cadre of queens dressed in their suits, including Harrison-Nelson, Banister, Montana, Rita Johnson of the Mohawk Hunters and Michelle Hammonth of the Diamond Star Hunters.
Harrison-Nelson, who believes in a balance of innovation with tradition, has gone out without a chief herself—when her son and then Guardians of the Flame Big Chief Brian Nelson, was away at college on Mardi Gras.
“I told people,” she said with a twinkle, “’Our chief is not here. I’m not saying I’m the Big Chief. But the Big Chief is in the last position in the gang. And when you get to the last position, I’ll be there. Infer what you want.’”
A lot has changed in Indian culture since Banister, Montana and Dollis began masking, whether that was twenty or forty years ago. Older Indians, who had passed on the tradition, have died; many others were unable to return after Hurricane Katrina and the floods that followed. And some agree that the loss of elders has meant less careful schooling, for younger Indians, in the traditions.
Some groups, like the Wild Magnolias, have teamed with studio musicians to meld traditional chanting and percussion with New Orleans funk, and also perform as bands, putting the culture literally onstage in New Orleans nightclubs and at festivals. (The much-covered song “Iko Iko,” for example, is rooted in Mardi Gras Indian chants.) Others stay traditional, and even somewhat secretive.
Littdell Banister, almost eighty years old, scoffed at some of the behavior she’s seen from young women masking as queens.
“It has changed tremendously, because the younger ones, they don’t want to go by the rules when you meet on the street. They don’t know how to meet and respect an older Indian,” she said. “All they want to do is jump up and down and look pretty. Anybody can dance. There’s more to it than that.”
Some queens have embraced the leadership role the title implies, to fill that gap. Rita Dollis has established a group called the Queens’ Council, which brings women in the Indian community together to do charity work, such as school-supply drives and Thanksgiving food-basket collections. This coming summer, she plans to hold a queen’s retreat, bringing young queens together with their elders to teach and learn.
In the past, Indians may have been fearsome, with physical confrontations when one gang ran into another. Now, by and large, Indians dance instead of fight when they meet in the street. If violence or angry words do occur, Rita Dollis said, a lack of knowledge or respect for Indian etiquette may be the culprit, and those are the things she, as queen, wants to take responsibility for passing on.
“When they speak to each other in the street, or at Indian practice, it’s like a tribute to the gang,” she said. “‘I’m big queen of the Wild Magnolia, won’t bow down.’ … But if I’m cursing her, then that’s horrible. You’re not respecting yourself and you’re not respecting the other queen.”
Rita Dollis uses her position to foster leadership and education within the Indian community. Along with the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, Cherice Harrison-Nelson also is active in an effort called Queens Rule! started by Tulane professor Rebecca Mark shortly after Katrina, which raises awareness of the queens’ role in the wider New Orleans.
Begun as a program of the Newcomb Institute at Tulane University, Queens Rule! organized public discussions with Indian queens and worked with Newcomb new media classes to create video tributes to Littdell Banister and other masking queens. In 2008, Herreast Harrison, who created the name Queens Rule, curated the first exhibit focusing on Mardi Gras Indian queens on the Fair Grounds during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 2015, Harrison-Nelson and Karen Celestan—the senior program director of the Music Rising initiative at Tulane’s Center for Gulf South Studies and editor of Harold Battiste’s 2010 autobiography “Unfinished Blues”—will publish the history “So, So Pretty: Mardi Gras Indian Queens of New Orleans,” in partnership with Queens Rule!
Malon McGee, the Little Queen of the Young Guardians of the Flame, is an Indian that will probably never offend Littdell Banister. On a weekday night during Carnival time, after a day of eighth-grade classes at St. Mary’s Academy and an evening of saxophone practice for her school marching band, which will walk in more than half a dozen Carnival parades this year, she’s getting down to sewing. Harrison-Nelson has a box of ostrich plumes open at her feet, from which Malon’s mom, Malita, is choosing for her daughter’s crown.
Malon, now thirteen, has been masking since she was seven, coming up through the bigger queen’s outreach programs. So far, the little queen has represented the Indian nation by speaking on panels alongside older queens as part of Queens Rule! as well as at the tenth anniversary of Eve Ensler’s V-Day initiative, which fights violence against women internationally, and at the Paul Robeson film awards in New York in 2012, when Brian Nelson’s Mardi Gras Indian film “Keepers of the Flame” was honored. When she grows up, she hopes to study social work, as well as continue with the saxophone. And she wants to keep masking as a queen.
As Malon sews, the room is full of girls and women: her mother, her grandmother, and three small nieces who crowd around Cherice. Each taking her turn, the little girls help to pull a length of thread through a bead on the Big Queen’s new suit.
“Sometimes when I’m doing my homework I just pick up a needle and start sewing,” Malon said, “and then I get back to doing my homework.”
The tradition of black New Orleanians parading in the streets as Indians is documented as far back as just a decade or so after Emancipation. Those early Indians would have firsthand knowledge of what their beaded and feathered suits are said to pay tribute to: the Native Americans who helped hide runaways during the time of slavery. In his excellent historical chapters on Indians, Berry makes note that to mask has always been an act of daring.
“To mask as an Indian meant that the poorest man,” he wrote, “could transcend the toil of daily life, however ephemerally, in open defiance of the role society imposed on him.”
In suits of blazing color, glittering with the intricate patches of beading and stonework that take up to a full year to sew, widened and heightened by dozens of waving plumes, Mardi Gras Indians are as conspicuous as you can get. The gestures of their dance are big; they shout and sing and rattle tambourines to be sure they’re seen and heard by all on Mardi Gras morning, Super Sunday or St. Joseph’s night.
“My mother started saying twenty-five years ago that Mardi Gras Indians were among the first civil rights activists,” Harrison-Nelson said. “They had a march every Mardi Gras day. They basically say, ‘I’ll be in my community appropriating public space for this ritual procession. If I get arrested, so be it.’ My daddy would say, ‘If I get arrested for wearing this, it’s nothing but a ride down and a walk back.’”
Ancillary or not, among those bodies walking with pride and insisting on being seen are women, wearing ornament as armor. They take up space, aggressively, in a world that doesn’t offer much of that for black women. And they announce their power, and their beauty, loudly, with the traditional Indian call for both men and women: that they’re so pretty.
“It’s nothing to do with size or height,” Cherice Harrison-Nelson said. “Once you put on your ceremonial attire in this community, you will be affirmed as pretty. Because normally I wouldn’t fit a Vogue standard of beauty, but when I put that attire on, people are going to tell me all day long you’re pretty, that’s pretty, you’re beautiful.”
“It is very empowering for a young woman,” Gina Montana said. “To come out and be on front stage in your community, walking down Claiborne Avenue, walking down Orleans Avenue, and to say ‘This is my spirit, this is my creativity, this is my art form and I don’t have to show my flesh, I’m showing you my art.’ That takes the experience up to another level with cultural awareness and consciousness, to say this is more important than whatever the latest dance is or something like that.”
Thirteen-year-old Malon McGee is at an age when messages about her body are incessant: what she should weigh, how her hair should look, how she ought to dress to be pretty. In her suit, the product of so many hours of labor and learning, she is transformed.
“When I put on my suit, I feel like I’m so pretty,” she said. “And I just want the whole world to see how pretty I look on Mardi Gras day. It’s like a feeling that just gets inside me, and I’m ready to go out.”
Gina Montana echoes that feeling.
“There’s nothing like it in the world,” she said. “To be in a Mardi Gras Indian suit on Carnival day, coming down Orleans. And you’re under the bridge and it’s like a sea of people from your community, and everyone is showing that mutual love and respect.”
“Whether I’m in my suit or out of my suit,” Montana said, “all year long I’m a queen.”