The traditions of New Orleans’ Black or, as they are commonly called, “Mardi Gras” Indians is unique to New Orleans. Yet, like jazz—which grows out the same soil of that city’s legendary Congo Square—it tells a defining story of America.
Mardi Gras 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, by organizing themselves into tribes that “masked Indian” on Mardi Gras day. In assuming the identity of “Indians” they both defied the prohibition and affirmed their historic kinship with Native Americans.
Since then, Mardi Gras 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 long ago 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, Mardi Gras Indians memorialize and celebrate a rich but largely disrupted and erased history.
The spirit of cultural synthesis and inclusiveness that defines Mardi Gras 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. Although New Orleans is a predominately Catholic city, 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, in doing so they 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 Mardi Gras 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 a title and honored role from one generation to the next is a graceful and seamless act of transmission. But, of course, traditional cultures are as fraught with intergenerational tensions as any other social arrangement. The father-son rivalry and displays of ego that emerge in the story may seem at odds with the larger values of Mardi Gras Indian culture—which are enduringly spiritual, anti-commercial, and community-based. Rather than diminishing these values, I believe these all too familiar 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 reveal 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 his long life. Through the example of his passionate commitment to his art form, he changed Mardi Gras 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 passed away, wiping out huge swathes of a city that he knew, deeply loved, and called home for his whole life. The impact of the destruction was disproportionately experienced in predominantly African American neighborhoods, such as the 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 people of color 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, Mardi Gras Indian culture never faltered. It came back strong and 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 Mardi Gras Indian culture, as brilliantly inventive and spiritually powerful as it is, won’t survive—beading new suits, playing old songs, telling its story, and redefining 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.”