“Oh, how we love to hear you call us Indian red,” are lyrics to the “Indian Red” song sung by African-American Mardi Gras Indian tribes at practice and at the onset of their annual Carnival trek through New Orleans streets.
“It calls you,” said Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a Catholic who serves as queen and managing director of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society Mardi Gras Indians, about joining a tribe. “Being an Indian is a spiritual calling from something greater than us. You know that you are called.”
Her father Donald Harrison Sr. heard the call at age 3 after seeing “Wild Man” Herman, a legendary Indian, in his “suit” on Carnival. The next year, Herman masqueraded with 4-year-old Harrison through the neighborhood,” leaving an indelible impression on him. Harrison joined the White Eagles in 1949 and is featured in the book, “Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians.”
“I always tell people my daddy loved this tradition,” said Harrison-Nelson, a parishioner of St. Mary of the Angels. “For African-American men, it was a place where they could be self-actualized as leaders. When you think about the 1940s to the ’90s, (being an Indian) is on their terms. You don’t go to learn this at Loyola or Tulane or Harvard, but it is still high art, fine art.”
The world of Mardi Gras Indians comes alive when Harrison-Nelson or Creole Osceolas Chief Clarence Dalcour Jr. talk about it.
Started his own gang
Chief Dalcour’s introduction to Mardi Gras Indians was through his father, Clarence Dalcour Sr., who followed the Yellow Pocahontas tribe made famous by Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. (Montana’s uncle, who was of Indian and African descent, was believed to have masked as an Indian as early as the 1880s).
Dalcour Jr., who attends Mass at St. Maria Goretti and St. Raymond-St. Leo the Great, was in the Yellow Pocahontas tribe for six years when he realized he couldn’t sew in the style that “Tootie” did. At age 27 – about 40 years ago – he formed the Creole Osceolas. At its peak there were approximately 27 members. Today, there are about seven.
It was wanting to do his own neighborhood’s style of sewing on suits and mask that prompted the move, he said.
“Suits tell stories, so they can be topical, historical or a personal narrative about the person,” Harrison-Nelson said.
The Creole Osceolas are known for suits with a flat 3-D style, often featuring animals in tribute to Native Americans. Chief Dalcour calls it a “Downtown suit in an Uptown style.”
His couture begins on whole sheets, not in pieces. These sheets hook together to form his suit. His crown uses a rose design that “starts like a bud and blooms out.”
Chief Dalcour estimates that his suits are embellished with 160,000 beads, another 160,000 sequins and countless feathers, costing an average of $5,000 whenever he masks. He doesn’t reuse beaded patches; he makes a new suit when he masks.
“I don’t do this because somebody is making me. I do it because I love it,” Chief Dalcour said. “I love the culture. I love representing my neighborhood, representing the city and our culture and what we do.”
For many years, Chief Dalcour’s friend Albert Brown drew and sewed the chief’s suits.
“I would dream it. He would draw it and sew it,” Chief Dalcour said. Today, his son Clarence III is the designer.
Usually tribes or gangs – a word used to describe black riverfront workers – are formed in neighborhoods, such as the 7th Ward or 9th Ward, where each starts its annual street procession.
The Creole Osceolas mask in the neighborhood behind Dillard University.
“We are neighborhood people,” he said.
When tribes of different neighborhoods meet on the street, they flaunt their suits and challenge each other to determine the “prettiest” suit that year.
“They used to fight,” Chief Dalcour said, referring to meetings of tribes from different neighborhoods. “But, I said, ‘I was going to be a Mardi Gras Indian one day, and it’s not going to be that way.’ All Indians are good Indians. Whether they start today or started yesterday. All Indians are good because they sacrifice money to show this. They sacrifice livelihoods to show this.”
Dalcour said he learned the importance of masking from long-time Indians who are no longer alive, such as Montana and White Eagles Jake Malone.
Both Chief Dalcour, a masker for 48 years, and Harrison-Nelson, who represents five generations of Indians in her family, know the importance of preserving Mardi Gras Indian traditions for future generations, considering some of them can be traced to slaves who self-emancipated from their masters and were taken in by Native Americans in Louisiana.
“This tradition is such a warrior culture,” Harrison-Nelson said. “It guides your sense of being in the world.”
“People should respect the tradition because of where it started,” he said. “People might say, ‘Dalcour, things change.’ Yeah it changes, but we’re still sewing and wearing feathers. Wearing those suits is what changes you.”
Chief Dalcour and Harrison-Nelson said the black Mardi Gras Indians are hybrids of Native American and African traditions – the crown (headdress) made of feathers like the Native Americans, and African influences of intricate bead and stone work, the songs, dances, percussion and coded signals in processions.
“It’s not truly West African; it’s not truly Native American. It is something that people from here created.”
Harrison-Nelson stressed the beauty of this culture in the autonomy of the tradition.
“Every group is different and has its own traditions and rules,” she said. “This is a tradition that is constantly in a state of evolution. It is an artistic expression based on culture and history.”
Common among all tribes is how they practice chants and dances and sew suits months before Carnival, and their use of the “Indian Red” song as a special tribute to their members, no matter what their faith is, at funerals.
“It’s a punctuation signal … starting … it’s over,” Harrison-Nelson said about the song.
In addition to Carnival, many Mardi Gras Indians wear their suits on St. Joseph Day, as a tribute to the Italians who served their African-American neighbors at their French Quarter groceries at a time during segregation, especially during the 1920-1960s.
What elders have told Harrison-Nelson is that Italian-Americans grocers extended credit to African Americans, building a mutual respect among members in both communities. The Indians began observing this tradition by masking and even making St. Joseph altars.
Not in conflict with religion
Although some believe vestiges of voodoo exist within the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, many tribe members are Catholic, said Chief Dalcour and Harrison-Nelson, who worshipped as a child at St. Peter Claver, St. Augustine and St. Matthias parishes.
“I don’t find any contradiction to what I do,” Harrison-Nelson said. “I find they co-exist within me.” Her aunt, Efzelda Booker-Coleman, erected St. Joseph altars.
Nothing Indians do when masking is contrary to Catholic belief, Chief Dalcour said. But when he dies, he hopes Josephite Father Bozeman will preside at his funeral Mass and allow the special Mardi Gras Indian funeral tradition that includes the singing of “Indian Red,” perhaps before Mass.
Museum preserves heritage
Harrison-Nelson and Chief Dalcour expressed joy in how Mardi Gras Indian traditions are now respected. Chief Dalcour was a consultant to actor Clarke Peters, who played a Mardi Gras Indian chief on the TV series “Treme.”
Their suits are considered a true art form, something they hope never dies. Several of Chief Dalcour’s suits are preserved at the Smithsonian Institute and the Louisiana State Museum, and a few of Harrison-Nelson’s family suits are displayed at the Clarence Harrison Sr. Museum that opened in 2012 on a plot of land her family owns.
“I’m the inheritor of something great,” she said. “It is my responsibility to always put forth the very best face of the tradition and to guard the tradition, because it is our wealth, and I want to make sure we can pass it on.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.