As early as the 1700s, African Americans in New
Orleans masqueraded as Native Americans in honor of the refuge local
tribes offered runaway slaves in the bayous of New Orleans, and
of bonds of friendship and marriage forged between these peoples.
By the Civil War, the identity of New Orleans had been cast in the
crucible of the city’s singular Mardi Gras celebration—
one that consolidated the power of white ruling elites, a tradition
that continued long after Emancipation. But by the 1880s, New Orleans’
African Americans had organized themselves into Mardi Gras Indian
tribes or gangs that “masked Indian,” and often fought
pitched battles on Mardi Gras day. In the atmosphere of post-Reconstruction’s
injustices and hypocrisies, “masking Indian” was an
implicit civil rights protest aimed at white elites and at segregation,
in keeping with New Orleans’ carnivalesque spirit.
The feature-length documentary, TOOTIE’S
LAST SUIT explores the complex relationships, rituals, history,
and music of New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras Indian culture
while telling the story of Allison “Tootie” Montana,
former Chief of Yellow Pocahontas Hunters. Celebrated throughout
the New Orleans as “the prettiest,” for the beauty and
inventiveness of his elaborately beaded Mardi Gras costumes, Tootie
Montana masked for 52 years, longer than any other Mardi Gras Indian.
Yet Tootie Montana’s contributions to Mardi
Gras Indian culture far exceed his artistic innovations and dedication.
Through the example of his own achievement, he came to be revered
for turning Mardi Gras Indians away from gang-style violence toward
artistic accomplishment and competition.
When Tootie retired in 1997 from the painstaking
labor of creating a new Mardi Gras suit each year, he conferred
the title of Chief on his son Darryl Montana. Pressured by his fans,
and possessed of an unflagging imagination and artistic will to
create, Tootie committed himself to making a Mardi Gras comeback
in 2004. As he completes his last Mardi Gras Indian suit, and decides
to parade alone, lifelong conflicts erupt between Tootie and Darryl.
Though deeply personal, this father-son rivalry speaks to the issue
of how traditional cultures are preserved, and how they are continuously
re-interpreted. TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT
is not just about Tootie’s passing on the baton, but also
about the difficulty of letting it go, as well as the distinct possibility
that the baton will be dropped. While it is Tootie Montana’s
voice that predominates, much of his story is told and seen from
the points-of-view of his son Darryl, the various chiefs who are
both his rivals and admirers, and others connected to the culture,
including Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John.
A year after Tootie Montana and Darryl Montana
appear for the last time together in Mardi Gras Indian suits, New
Orleans police shut down the annual Mardi Gras Indian celebration
of St. Joseph’s night on the pretense that the Indians did
not have a parade permit. TOOTIE’S LAST
SUIT chronicles the police violence that erupts that night,
and its tragic aftermath.
When a City Council hearing was called to address the St. Joseph’s
night attacks on June 27th, 2005, Chief Tootie Montana was invited
to speak first. In the packed council chambers he recounts the police
brutality he and his tribe members had endured over the years. While
appealing for a halt to police violence, Chief Tootie Montana is
stricken with a heart attack. At age 82, he died on the floor of
the council chambers.
Two months later, Hurricane Katrina struck. In
the wake of the hurricane and the levees’ breach, when thousands
of African Americans were abandoned by public officials to suffer,
and to die, Chief Tootie Montana’s testimony echoes as a prophetic
premonition of how Katrina would lay bare before the world the extremities
of racism in America.
In the aftermath of Katrina, TOOTIE’S
LAST SUIT bears witness to the Mardi Gras Indians who, in
picking up the threads of their torn lives and tradition, are the
spiritual healers of New Orleans.
Tootie Montana, Mardi Gras 2004