By Daja Henry
It’s Mardi Gras day. Aside from dodging your drunk uncle and bead-snatching kids, you have to make time for one thing: “catching” the Mardi Gras Indians on any one of their circuitous and spontaneous routes through the neighborhoods. Their intricate costumes and headdresses never cease to amaze, down to each deliberately-placed bead and feather.
The culture of the Mardi Gras Indians is one rooted deeply in New Orleans. Though there are several theories on the Mardi Gras Indians’ beginnings, one thing is clear—the traditions and rituals draw heavily from the culture of Native American tribes.
The popular story goes that Black inhabitants, both enslaved and free, were not a part of the original Mardi Gras celebrations due to slavery and deeply ingrained racism. Resourceful and proud, however, they created their own celebrations.
The Mardi Gras Indian tribes have a clear hierarchy. There is the Big Chief, flanked by two other chiefs and spy boys, flag boys, wild men, and medicine men. Each chief also has a queen.
For Black Mardi Gras Indians, The “Indian” theme was chosen to pay homage to the Native Americans, with whom they had formed a special bond as many Native American tribes opened their villages to the enslaved who claimed their freedom by running away. Interactions with Native Americans fueled the mixing and mingling of cultures that gave us the Mardi Gras Indians of today with their elaborate costumes and intense rituals.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson, teacher, activist, culture bearer, and Queen of the Guardians of the Flame, is committed to preserving the culture of the Indians.
“For many, being a Mardi Gras Indian is a calling. It is a spiritual experience that consumes your being; it is in fact, a way of being,” she says.
This lifestyle has been ingrained into her very being through the practices of her father the late Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr, who had been masking since 1949. It was this culture, coupled with her mother’s establishment of day care centers, that fueled her commitment to sharing Mardi Gras Indian culture with youth.
Besides Mardi Gras, every year on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) and Super Sunday, the Indian tribes march down the streets of their neighborhoods, chanting and dancing. When two tribes cross paths, it is definitely a spectacle. Anticipation keeps onlookers rooted to their spot as they watch the Spy Boy warn the Flag Boy of a tribe coming. The Flag Boy then notifies the tribe and the Wild Man comes out to make way for the Big Chief’s performance. The Big Chiefs must challenge each other. They dance and shout back and forth about being the best chief.
In 1999, Harrison-Nelson founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, dedicated to illuminating the authentic experiences of diverse members of the Black/Mardi Gras Indian community. It was established as a part of the curriculum at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School, where she was on the faculty.
She, along with her mother Herreast Harrison, also founded the Guardians Institute in 2006 in honor of her father who was Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, which is “dedicated to the development of our youth through literacy, New Orleans’ indigenous cultural arts and West African and New World oral traditions.”
Through these two organizations, the Harrison family contributes to the culture and upbringing of many youths in the Ninth Ward neighborhood and throughout New Orleans.
The Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum houses many intricate costumes, artwork, music collections and paraphernalia that are associated with the Mardi Gras Indian culture. They also put on the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Week Celebration, in which they honor New Orleanians who have contributed to the preservation of their culture and community.
The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum are open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. for tours by appointment. For more information or to make reservation, call 504-214-6630.