Saturday, January 19, 2008

Big Chiefs and Flag Boys

Yesterday was an interesting day to say the least. The Chilantakoba Lodge # 397 of the Order of the Arrow held its annual lodge banquet and the theme was "Goin' to the Mardi Gras." Suffice it to say that I move easily between different cultures here in New Orleans. Through my many contacts I was able to bring two disparate groups together yesterday at the banquet. One is, of course, the Order of the Arrow, a fraternity of cheerful service that is an honor society within the Boy Scouts of America. The other is the Mardi Gras Indians culture that has existed here in New Orleans since the 1880s. Both groups embraced Native American culture and put their own stamps on it. The Order of the Arrow embraced the Lenni-Lenape (or Delaware Indians as Europeans referred to them) Native Americans. The Mardi Gras Indians probably identified with the local Choctaw, Creek, and Houmas Indians who frequented Southeast Louisiana and Mississippi, although their identity is very much African in scope. Regardless, the ability to see the Boy Scouts be exposed to the sub-culture of New Orleans was very interesting, especially since the Mardi Gras Indians have become much more respectable these days. Years ago they were, literally, a bunch of gangs who would frequent several haunts, habitually abuse alcohol and spark fights among themeselves. Above you can see one of the younger members of the Mardi Gras Indians, or the Mardi Gras maskers as they refer to themselves. They each make their own costumes, or suits and the headdress is called a "crown." The beadwork is very intricate as is the sewing very detailed. The presentation lasted over 20 minutes with Counsel Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Keepers of the Flame explaining the terms "spy boy," "flag," "flag boy," "big chief," "big queen" and others to the crowd. She and Irvin Bannister, Jr. played and sang several Mardi Gras Indians chants including the revered "Indian Red," commonly played at their funerals or other solemn events. What a day! By my being associated with the Boy Scouts and having the contacts to get the presentation made at the banquet, two very different cultures were able to meet and understand each other, at least for a while. In a post-Katrina environment, respect for each other is critical in moving towards recovery.

1 comment:

Big Easy Chief said...

As a member of the Mardi Gras Indian community I would like to add a little balance to the comment, "Years ago they were, literally, a bunch of gangs who would frequent several haunts, habitually abuse alcohol and spark fights among themselves." Mardi Gras Indians may appear to roam the neighborhoods aimlessly without specific direction. It is only a facade misunderstood by casual observers. They have routes and general stops they intend to make. Stops can include neighborhood social establishments, the home of a retired chief, so called old folks home, hospitals, etc. Alcohol is a staple in American celebrations, beer on the fourth of July, Mint Juleps on Kentucky Derby Day, Irish Whiskey and green beer on St. Patrick's Day, champagne on New Year's Day and to toast at celebrations, beer at Oktoberfest, you get the picture. So it is perfectly within the realm of American alcohol consumption mores to partake of libations on Mardi Gras. Still, anyone familiar with the attire of Mardi Gras Indians would know that fluid intake is basically limited to water and other beverages to remain hydrated. It is not worth the hassle of consuming huge amounts of any type of fluids. Repeatedly going to the restroom in full Mardi Gras dress would be a HUGE pain. As for the fighting, to mask as a Mardi Gras Indian is to be a part of a cultural warrior society. Please note, it is a masking tradition and much of what is and was perceived of as fights is mock ritual battles. The important word is ritual, the tradition is full of ritual and protocol cloaked in bravado. However, reports of rampant violence associated with the tradition by casual observers it is greatly over exaggerated. Mardi Gras Indians have internal governance practices to abate physical altercations. Additionally, an enormous amount of time, money and effort is put into making an Indian suit and the last thing a participant would want to do would be to destroy their suit in a fight. Older members of the community will tell you, the fighting you write of, is largely myth. It adds to the allure of the tradition and one-upmanship of conversation of individuals who understand the tradition in a very surface sensationalist manner. The tradition is and always has been one of beauty and strength led by magnificent African American men. Kudos to the Chiefs for maintaining a wonderful tradition that highlights the bonds, strength, and beauty of oppressed people. It is nice to have a vibrant tradition that is uniquely New Orleans and African American.