New Orleans’ Black Masking Indians or, as they are commonly called, “Mardi Gras” Indians are unique to New Orleans. Like jazz—which grows out the soil of that city’s legendary Congo Square—they tell a defining story of American culture.
Black Masking Indian culture was forged in a crucible of racist exclusion: people of color in New Orleans were prohibited from participating in the city’s annual celebration of Mardi Gras. Beginning in the late 19th century New Orleanians of color responded to this prohibition, and to segregation more generally, in organizing themselves into tribes that “masked Indian” on Mardi Gras day. In assuming the identity of “Indians” they both defied the racist prohibition and affirmed their historic kinship with Native Americans.
Since then, Black Masking Indian culture has thrived in New Orleans as a ritualized celebration of African and Native American music, dance, artistic, and spiritual traditions, and as a living legacy of the bonds of friendship and marriage forged between Native Americans and enslaved Africans—many of whom escaped enslavement and lived in “maroon” communities with local indigenous people. Through perennial creative innovation, featuring the hand-sewing of intricately beaded “Mardi Gras Indian suits” each year, Black Masking Indians memorialize and celebrate a rich but largely disrupted and erased history of kinship with Native Americans. At the same time they interrogate the white supremacist history of the segregated Mardi Gras krewes and parades from which they were excluded.
The spirit of cultural synthesis and inclusiveness that defines Black Masking Indian culture is also expressed in the celebration of the Sicilian Catholic festival honoring St. Joseph (the patron saint of the poor) on March 19th every year. New Orleans is a largely Catholic city, but that alone does not account for why Mardi Gras Indians dress in their splendid beaded suits and take to the streets on St. Joseph’s night. According to Chief Tootie Montana, they do so to honor the bonds of friendship and neighborliness that existed—even at the height of Jim Crow in New Orleans—between African Americans and Sicilian Americans. For Tootie, who grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in the 7th Ward, the dazzling and elaborate St. Joseph shrines that local Sicilian American shopkeepers created for the St. Joseph feast day provided an early source of inspiration for the design of his Indian suits.
When I began making "Tootie’s Last Suit" I had no idea it would evolve into a father/son story of succession. Yet, it was soon evident that for Chief Tootie Montana relinquishing the role of chief and passing it on to his son Darryl was a complicated and difficult transition for many reasons. It is tempting for modern urban dwellers or “rootless cosmopolitans” to romanticize traditional cultures, to imagine that the passing of an honored role from one generation to the next is a graceful and seamless act of transmission. But traditional cultures are as fraught with intergenerational tensions as any other. The father-son rivalry and displays of ego that emerge in the story may seem at odds with the larger values of Black Masking Indian culture—which are enduringly spiritual, anti-commercial, and community-based. Rather than diminishing these values, I believe these common familial conflicts call our attention to how art and culture are larger than the flawed human personalities that create them. Chief Tootie Montana’s life and work reveals that the distinctly human genius for creating art renders our humbling contradictions and conflicts more bearable, and that artistic creation often reflects an otherwise inexpressible sense of inner grace. Chief Tootie Montana represented this transformative value of art throughout a more than 50-year commitment to making brilliantly designed and crafted Mardi Gras Indian suits. Through the example of his passionate commitment to his art form, he changed Black Masking Indian culture: turning it away from violent interactions on the streets toward competitive artistic creation. Today, his heirs— notably, his son Chief Darryl Montana and Chief Victor “FiYiYi” Harris of Mandingo Warriors—carry his legacy as standard bearers of the culture.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans two months after Chief Tootie Montana unexpectedly passed away, wiping out huge swathes of a city that he deeply loved and called home for his entire life. The destruction disproportionately impacted African American neighborhoods, such as the Lower 9th Ward. Before Katrina, New Orleans had one of the highest rates of African American home ownership of any American city; after the storm, the massive loss of homes triggered the largest displacement of African Americans since the Civil War. For a multitude of reasons—including homeowner insurance policies that offered inadequate compensation to rebuild; a “Road Home” recovery program that also provided insufficient funds to homeowners; and the gutting of the public school system as well as much public housing in New Orleans—many New Orleanians never returned home. Yet, in the aftermath of Katrina and the staggering social havoc it wrought, Black Masking Indian culture never faltered. After Katrina the culture was embraced as a vital symbol of New Orleans’ survival by all races and ethnicities. In the post-Katrina years the culture has continued to grow, drawing more young people into the art and craft of suit-making and the rich repertoire of songs and dances that form the core of the tradition.
If or when New Orleans is ever lost—to another hurricane or the alarming rate of climate change and wetland erosion—it will spell the death of a most precious part of our nation’s soul. Still, it seems unimaginable that Black Masking Indian culture, as brilliantly inventive and spiritually powerful as it is, won’t survive—beading new suits, playing old songs, telling its story, and reinventing beauty. As Fred Johnson, former Spyboy to Chief Tootie Montana’s tribe Yellow Pocahontas Hunters and CEO of New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation, once said: “Even if there are only two people left in New Orleans, at least one of them will be a Mardi Gras Indian.”