In New Orleans, the famous Mardi Gras Indian tradition is an essential part of the city’s culture, especially at Mardi Gras. But just what is a Mardi Gras Indian? What’s a Spy Boy, or a Flag Boy? Or a Big Chief or a Big Queen? The only people who can give real answers about this many-layered culture are the Mardi Gras Indians themselves — so in this episode we’re going to them directly, from the oldest living Mardi Gras Indian to some of the youngest, as they share with us their dedication to preserving this vibrant and evolving tradition.
Our guide and guest producer for this special episode is Cherice Harrison-Nelson, aka Maroon Queen Cherice of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, a co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. An educator, anthropologist, and cultural activist, her work has taken her around the country and the world. The daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr and Herreast Harrison, both New Orleans cultural activists, she is the sister of musician Donald Harrison Jr, who is also Big Chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian gang. Her son Brian Harrison Nelson is Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame.
Cherice introduced us to Isaac “Mr Ike” Edwards, the oldest living Mardi Gras Indian, who stopped masking in 1952, but continues to sew for the tradition, especially for children. He’s known for his “butterfly” beadwork, and at the age of 92 still sews without glasses. Our visit with him at his home was a highlight of working on this episode.
Big Chief Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters, featured in this episode, began masking Indian in the mid-1950s, soon after Mr Ike stopped masking. He’s become one of the most respected Mardi Gras Indians, and is especially known for his singing. He has made very few recordings, however — the song he sings in this episode was recorded by Smithsonian Folkways in the 1980s.
In 2015, WWOZ partnered with the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame to document and share the stories and voices of Mardi Gras Indian Queens in New Orleans. Five of those Big Queens are featured in this episode:
Big Queen Patrice Gordon of the Golden Blades
Big Queen Gina Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas
Tribal Queen Bee, Littdell Bannister of Creole Wild West
Big Queen Ree, Pauline Johnson of Creole Wild West
Big Queen Laurita Barras Dollis of the Wild Magnolias.
…and to learn more about all the Big Queens we interviewed, click here.
The version of the Mardi Gras Indian song “Indian Red” heard in this program is sung by Cara Harrison, Cherice’s sister, of the Young Guardians of the Flame.
TO LEARN MORE:
The website for the Mardi Gras Indian Council is filled with information, as well as many beautiful photos.
The KnowLouisiana.org website, produced by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, has a wealth of additional information about the tradition:
A general description of Mardi Gras Indians, by Matt Sakakeeny.
An article about the connection between the 19th Century Buffalo Bill and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, by Michael P Smith.
Contextual Portraits Mardi Gras Indians From An Insider’s View, photos and recollections by photographer Nash Porter, who grew up with Mardi Gras Indians and photographed them over the course of decades.
On the Backstreets of Mardi Gras, photos and videos about the Backstreet Cultural Museum and its founder Sylvester Francis, who documents Mardi Gras Indian culture.
A video documenting “The History of the Creole Wild West as Told by Themselves,” a performance and panel discussion with the Creole Wild West Tribe of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Our special segment at the end of this episode is by producer Weenta Girmay, and brings us inside a vibrant but mostly unknown tradition of New Orleans cuisine — home cooked meals for sale, directly from the kitchens of chefs in neighborhoods all over the city.
And you can follow the chefs in this segment on social media:
Francitta Clemons – Instagram
And for more information, check out the blog post “Plate Lunches” on neworleanscalling.org.
This segment was made possible with generous support from the Threadhead Cultural Foundation, with the mission of preserving, promoting, and disseminating the cultural heritage of New Orleans. Find out more at thcfnola.org.
THIS WEEK’S TRACK LISTING:
Young Guardians of the Flame – “Two Way Pockey Way”
Mardi Gras Indians – “Red White and Blue Got the Golden Band”
Young Guardians of the Flame – “Two Way Pocky Way”
Young Guardians of the Flame – “Golden Crown”
Young Guardians of the Flame – “Chong Chong”
Donald Harrison, Jr. with Dr. John and The Guardians of the Flame – “Hu-Ta-Nay”
Mardi Gras Indian practice, field recording by George Ingmire
Golden Commanche – “Tu Way Pac Kee Way”
Wild Tchoupitoulas – “Hey Hey (Indian Comin)”
Donald Harrison, Jr. with Dr. John and The Guardians of the Flame – “Shallow Water”
Donald Harrison, Jr. – “I’m The Big Chief Of Congo Square”
Indians of the Nation – “White Cloud Hunter”
Big Chief Charles and the White Cloud Hunters – “Sew, Sew, Sew”
Young Guardians of the Flame – “Indian Red”
Big Queens and a Big Chief – “Shallow Water” (recorded live at WWOZ)
Rebirth Brass Band – “Take It To The Street”
Lil’ Rascals Band – “H.I.T.”
The Stooges Brass Band – “Paul Barbarin”
NEW ORLEANS CALLING is a production of WWOZ, listener-supported community radio in the Crescent City.
This episode is a collaboration with the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, and Cherice Harrison-Nelson is our special Guest Producer.
George Ingmire is the host, writer, editor, interviewer, audio engineer, intrepid field recorder, and co-producer.
Dave Ankers is the producer.
Melanie Merz is the supervising producer.
National distribution managed by Russell Shelton and Carmen Connor Post.
Web support by David Stafford.
Executive Producer is WWOZ’s General Manager David Freedman.
Special thanks to Karen Celestan, Maryse Dejean, and Cherice Harrison Nelson for conducting the interviews with the Mardi Gras Indian Queens.
Special thanks to Crystal Gross for initially setting this project in motion, to Lauren Del Rio for fundraising, and to Carrie Booher for additional production on the Queens segments.
Live recordings produced by George Ingmire, Damond Jacob, and Joe Stolarick.
And thanks to:
Sally Young and Melanie Merz for their voice talents.
New Orleans Calling volunteers Catey Boyle, Doug Marshall, and Helen Kyriakoudis.
Photo of Mohawk Hunters Spy Boy Dow at Super Sunday 2015, by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee www.rhrphoto.com.