Mardi Gras Indian Culture: Identity, Community & Way of Life
Mardi Gras Indian culture is an integral part of New Orleans’ diverse melting pot of rich heritages and traditions. In this interview, Cherice Harrison-Nelson shares the story behind the Mardi Gras Indian culture, explaining its origins, practices, and the symbolism of the spectacular suits and works of art for which the community is known.
Cherice is a Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society in New Orleans, Louisiana. Born in 1959, she is the co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, which works to honor and commemorate the artistry and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians. She is the third of five generations who practice this tradition, and the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society celebrated their thirtieth anniversary in 2018.
A public-school teacher, she holds an M.A. in Education from Xavier University, and is a creator in multiple media: she has released a music CD, three original plays, and helped to produce the documentary “Guardians of the Flame” with her son.
Cherice was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Ghana and Senegal. She works to educate the public about these traditions and to protect them as well. She is currently engaged in a campaign to create fair use laws for art created by Louisiana artists such as the Mardi Gras Indians.
I know you’ll enjoy this interview with Cherice, and her insights into the beautiful traditions of the Mardi Gras Indian culture, which offer lessons for us all on the principles of empowerment, identity, community, dignity, self expression and the art of life.
Meg: Who are the Mardi Gras Indians?
Cherice: If you ask 20 different people who participate, you’ll get 20 different answers, so this is my take on it. The most common explanation you’ll hear is that when the enslaved ran away from the plantations, the Indians took them into their groups. Any person who self-emancipates is a maroon. All maroons, I venture to say, some, not all were sheltered by area by people indigenous to the region before invaders came. They were known as Maroons. That’s a person who self-emancipates. I need to hang my hat on the resistance, the fact that some of my ancestors refuse to bow down to being enslaved.
Meg: Can you explain what you mean by ‘Maroon?’
Cherice: Maroons were Africans who self-emancipated, and refused to “bow down” to living enslaved in the Americas. They had escaped from slavery and mixed with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and formed independent settlements. The term can also be applied to their descendants. Until the mid-1760s, maroon colonies lined the shores of Lake Borgne, just downriver of New Orleans, Louisiana. These formerly enslaved people controlled many of the canals and back-country passages from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf, including the Rigolets.
There are written accounts of people who appear to be of African descent dressed in Native-American clothing. If you are assimilated into a group, you’re not going to wear the clothes you had on the plantation. That was one segment of the people who ran away, self-emancipated.
When my great-great-grandfather Madison was sold in 1820, on his bill of sale it said that he was a grif, and a grif is a person of Native American and African ancestry.
Documentation of the sale of Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s great-great-grandfather Madison in 1820. Photos: Cherice Harrison-Nelson
Meg: What was the time frame for the people running away?
Cherice: It would have been the entire period from the onset of stealing and enslaving human-beings of African descent to emancipation in 1865.
Back to who we are, I would say this tradition is an African-American community neighborhood-based tradition that often uses a Native American motif, which includes the feather headdresses and beadwork. But basically, everything else about it is West African. The songs are narrative, and you’re in a call-and-response format, and traditionally the instrumentation is percussive. Drums, cowbells, as one Indian told me maybe 25 years ago, you might beat your body when you try to get that. It’s very polyrhythmic and poly-layered.
Meg: Is there a belief among the people that call themselves Mardi Gras Indians that they have a West African heritage and that they also have a Native American heritage?
Cherice: Yes, there is. Some are recognized. Others say they’re definitely masking as Native Americans. They will tell you “I am masking as an Indian.” But for me, it’s part of who I am. If I’m taking what’s in my spirit and in my soul, and it’s manifesting itself as original art, ceremonial attire, I am actually naked.
I want to say something about the word Indian. Some people want to be called Native American. Some people want to be called Indigenous people. Some want to be called First Nation people. I don’t ever want to say that whatever my terminology is, is the terminology, although it may be the terminology of the masses. It’s really up to the individual to tell me if they’re First Nation, Indigenous people or Native American. It’s not my place to say that.
If you’re looking at empirical evidence, the large, free-flowing headdresses are not indigenous to the Native Americans in this area. People here were influenced by the Indians in the Southwest on some level. Some people, not me, attribute that contact to the Wild West shows that came through, but how do you know that people didn’t travel? That explanation is based on having a very narrow vision, and I think it was a plethora of ways that this tradition came about. The polyrhythmic drumming, the call and response of the chants, the narrative storytelling and the beadwork and the dance and the dress – I see all those things as being definitely rooted in West African tradition.
The songs are in a call-and-response format, they’re narrative, often lifting up their group or gang, or lifting up someone that was associated with your gang. For instance, the song “My Big Chief Has a Golden Crown.” The chief may sing that but maybe somebody else is singing that song, and if they’re singing that song, they’re basically telling the other group my chief is a bad chief, as in “He’s pretty, I got the best chief.” You even hear them saying things like – my daddy would say “I got the gang they wish they had.”
So you have ritualized processions, with this percussive music but original fine art attire that is handcrafted and narrative. Your suit tells a story, it has a story to it, and the procession you usually go through a neighborhood and they make stops – what I call memories. So, you may pay homage, like we will stop at the older chief’s house. The children will greet him, he will greet the children, but maybe you’ll stop at somebody’s grandmother’s house. You may stop at a house for refreshment, so it’s really a community celebration that’s led by strong African American men called chiefs.
Your number one requirement to be part of a group is loyalty: your gang before any other gang. If it comes down to it, you’re going to stand with your chief. Every person in the group has a role.
Mardi Gras Indian Culture: A Harrison-Nelson Tradition & Legacy
Meg: Your father, Donald Harrison Sr., was Big Chief of the Guardian of the Flames and engaged in the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition from age four in 1937 to his death in 1998. Did your father start the tradition in your family?
Cherice: He wasn’t the first one. The first known one was his Uncle Joseph, so we have five generations in our family who have masked Indian. My uncle just passed. At one time we had four living generations of our family still participating. My generation is the oldest generation. My son is in the fourth. I’m the third, and then we have a few in the fifth.
I did not suit/dress for nine years after my father passed, because it was really painful for me. Every time I tried to sew, I would just get profoundly sad in my head and in my heart. At that time, I thought that if he wasn’t with me, it wasn’t for me. But then in the aftermath of the federal levee breaking, also known as Katrina, I felt an urgency, a resurgence in my spirit, to participate again. Because it is part of what defines New Orleans.
For me, the masking Indian tradition is evidence that my ancestors did not forget their ancestral homeland. That’s why I participate. I feel that it’s a spiritual calling. And when you’re called, you’re pretty helpless. This is what I do. My mother sometimes can’t understand why, but it’s like a calling. I didn’t ask to participate.
Our theme in 2012 was Rise Up. I had recently gone through chemotherapy and so I was a rising phoenix. My professor drew the image; she actually used me as a model. I stood in her office, held my arms the way I wanted it on the suit and she drew me as the Phoenix. For me, it’s almost a self-portrait because it’s me. It’s a self-portrait done with beads.
In 2016, my suit was in honor of my great-great grandfather Madison, who was stolen in 1820 and brought here enslaved as an 11-year-old. How can I mask as Madison’s great-great granddaughter? I am Madison’s great-great granddaughter. So I have given you my authentic self in its purest form, so therefore I am naked, and not masked.
Meg: You’re revealing more.
Cherice: Right. Instead of putting on layers, I’m taking off.
Meg: Are the Mardi Gras Indians a social network or a cultural network?
Cherice: It’s both. It’s a community-based tradition. It’s a family-based tradition. It’s a neighborhood-based tradition. There are funeral rites, grieving rituals. When a person becomes an ancestor, some groups have what they call rings, and they go to a designated place and they will do a song. They have like a practice where they do a prayer song and other songs of life celebration, and the narrative of those songs will often lift the person up much the way they do in West Africa, and eulogize them.
Meg: When you said community, is that the Ninth Ward or all throughout New Orleans?
Cherice: It’s different communities. It could be a geographical community. It could be the family. It could just be your network of friends. Because people don’t just exist in this little geographic community.
I also look at it as concentric circles. In the tradition, you have the people who dress as the center circle. Then you have the next circle. That’s the people who really know. That would be like my mom who helped fix something on my suit to make sure it was falling right. Then your the next circle is your friends. They’re there for the moral support; they love you, but they don’t understand the correct positioning of a suit. For instance, if the vest is too open or it needs to come over your shoulders more, or one of the pieces is twisted around, my current suit has long flaps. So, if one of the pieces is twisted, they may not realize that. Then you have the next circle, your spectators who don’t really know anything about the tradition. They have exoticized it, and they’re just coming to see, and to have what I call cocktail one-upmanship chatter.
Meg: To become a member, what is involved?
Cherice: It depends on each group. Some groups have rituals. You have to wear a certain color the first year. You can be born into the tradition. A chief can ask you to be a member of the group. We call them gangs. Even that word has a work ethic background. According to what the elders tell us, many of the men worked on a riverfront and the work groups were called gangs, and they brought that language to the tradition. It’s a unifying word.
Meg: The word ‘tribe’ is not used?
Cherice: Some people use tribe. Some people use gang. If I have a choice, I’m going to use gang. We call ourselves a Maroon Society because that just seems like the perfect way for us to describe ourselves because we’re not bowing down to conventional Carnival. We’re not bowing down to having a predesignated route and submitting that to the New Orleans Police Department. We’re doing our thing. It’s self-determination. It’s self-actualization. All of those things that are part of the freedoms that are held close, dear as part of the American experience. They are manifested here, but in a cultural way, a way that’s rooted in my Africanness. I call myself an American African rather than an African American. I had a Fulbright scholarship and an opportunity to study at universities in Ghana and Senegal. That was my first trip to West Africa, and it made it perfectly clear to me that I am an American.
Meg: How so?
Cherice: Because I have been acculturated, so when I turn that switch on, I expect light. I guess in a sense I was the Ugly American, but you have the realization, okay, you’re in West Africa, this is different. But I felt disconnected. My mother had a DNA test that says that she’s 88 percent West African from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, but that still doesn’t mean anything. Because those are geographical constructs, Western. It doesn’t mean anything. Just because you’re telling me I’m from Nigeria, I don’t know if I’m Edo. If I’m from Ghana, I don’t know if I’m Twi. I don’t know if I’m Ashanti.
Meg: That really gets to the heart of ‘How do you define cultural identity?’
Cherice: I had a lot of problems with that for a long time. In West Africa, we went to an artists’ village. There was a lady of European descent who was showing them a better way to do a practice that was done here for several centuries, maybe thousands of years. When a scholar does not respect the community knowledge and that these people know what they’re doing, that’s pretty messed up. I was just shaking my head. I couldn’t talk. I wasn’t like everybody else saying “That’s wonderful.” I just was to myself saying ‘Wow, I don’t know what they’re doing’ because I’m disconnected. When people come here and impose their so-called better way, then I’m going to be even more lost. Because 20 years from the day, if they do what you’re suggesting and my grandchildren or my child comes there, they’ll learn that, and they’re still not learning…
Meg: What’s authentic.
Cherice: Right. In my family we really don’t celebrate holidays. Frederick Douglass said about the Fourth of July, ‘What do we have as a people to celebrate on Independence Day?’ Although I was baptized Catholic, with the celebration of Christmas and Easter, all those other Christian holidays, what is it that my people celebrate? Why don’t I know if it’s yam season or whatever festival in some part of Nigeria that I may be connected to? My roots have been severed, so for me the Mardi Gras tradition is an act of reclaiming my identity by sewing myself back to my ancestral homeland one bead at a time.
Meg: How do you celebrate being a Mardi Gras Indian? How do you live that in your life?
Cherice: I wouldn’t say celebrate. It’s a way of life. Everything you do is filtered through that. Just about anywhere you go in this city, people know you’re a part of this tradition. People’s houses are set up so they have a sewing room. If you see two colors together you say ‘Oh yeah, those colors would look good together.’ At the same time, I try to pay respect to things that elders have done. Like we’re wearing the royal blue this year. Although my daddy had a deeper blue, he usually cut with white, so his cut color was white. When I wore this suit my cut color was white.
Elements of Mardi Gras Indian Suit
Meg: It’s called a suit.
Cherice: Right, not a costume.
Meg: What do you mean by cut color?
Cherice: It’s the second color, it’s an accent color. He had white. I don’t always use white, but this year I’m using royal blue and white as a kind of homage to him. In addition to that, I bought a royal blue ribbon. Because my dad wore a ribbon, I wanted to have a ribbon. The ribbons are located on the apron and it’s on the cuff. They add to the beauty of the suit because they create motion. When you dance the ribbons are gentle but flowing through the air and he liked that. It was an integral part of his suit. It is a traditional uptown style of dressing. It’s not as prevalent today.
Meg: Can you describe the process? How and when does the gang decides the theme, the colors, etc.?
Cherice: It depends. It’s very gang-specific. My brother’s group is Congo Square Nation Afro New Orleans, like Afro-Cuban or Afro-Brazilian, so his suits are characterized by the mask, so you know when you see that mask that’s Congo Nation.
The way he designs his suits, he has a mask with what we call rabbit ears or earrings on his sides. Some people wear a mask in which the eyes are cut out. His has the face cut out.
My daddy dressed in what was known as an old-time uptown style; the suits weren’t as elaborate as they are today. My daddy wore the free-flowing satin ribbon you can see on my son’s suit. This suit actually has cuffs that has ribbon on it.
My father liked a more free-flowing suit because he had been in the service at Fort Niagara and he had visited the Seneca Nations group. He noticed the beauty of the dance, the subtleness of it, where if you moved the ribbons were flowing.
Meg: The headpiece is called a crown?
Cherice: A crown or a hat.
Meg: What are the other elements?
Cherice: You have the cuffs which you put on the arms. There is a collar or dickey. The collar, for lack of a better term, it’s like a bib. It’s worn over the vest or jacket, it’s like another level of embellishment. The decorated shoes or boots, depending. A stick, which is a decorated staff. It usually has feathers.
Meg: Does the stick signify he’s the chief?
Cherice: It used to, but now spy boys can have sticks. In the old days, only the chief carried a stick, and the stick was actually a way of communicating with the group, so the chief would hold the stick up as a way of communicating. Today a lot of the times the sticks are just an extension of the suit, it just depends on the group.
The apron is the main part and typically extends from your waist down. The vest or jacket features a beaded patch worn on your chest. There’s another style called the downtown style, and they make designs or cardboard that are three-dimensional. But today, you can’t just say uptown or downtown, because it’s all hybrids. There are people’s own creations that are neither uptown, downtown but uniquely them.
Meg: Back to the suits, do you decide, this is our color?
Cherice: Since 2008 we allowed a child to pick our colors. I tried to influence the child this year because I want to wear purple. I said, “I’ve never worn purple,” and he said, “We’re not wearing it next year [laughs] because I want royal blue and white.” I said, “You can have the royal blue but you don’t tell us what the cut is.”
Meg: So the children get to pick one main color. Is that in a way part of preserving the culture – inviting people to participate?
Cherice: It came about for us by accident. We were working on selecting the color democratically by consensus, sitting in a circle with the children, and we were going through the colors. And I guess in my mind I thought I was going to pick the color anyway. And there Little Chief Kevin said, “What is our name? Guardians of the Flame! Don’t you think we should have fire flame colors? We should wear yellow, red, and orange.” So we wore yellow, red, and orange. [laughs]
Meg: That was the first year.
Cherice: Then, you know children, “I want to pick the color!” the next year, so we just said okay, you get to pick.
Meg: That’s fantastic. You mentioned a specific day when the color was chosen.
Cherice: No, it’s not a specific day, but it’s usually close after Mardi Gras, like in April or May of the following year. Because you want to have time to let it kind of marinate, decide what you’re going to cut with.
Meg: How long does it take to make a suit?
Cherice: You’re working almost a year.
Meg: So every year everybody creates their own design for their suit.
Cherice: Right. You get stuck, you just have to do what you have to do as it gets close to the day.
Meg: Can you talk, very specifically, about how the costumes are designed and made?
Cherice: I can’t talk specifically but I can say some things generally because some of it is secret, and we just must to hold some things for ourselves. But generally, I would say that you start with the story you want your suit to tell. That’s where I begin. Then I develop images for a suit based on my chosen theme. For me, my theme may come to me from a variety of ways. I say I have to get quiet and the ancestors will speak to me.
Once I decide on the images for my suit, then it’s a process of putting the suit together. For me as a woman, I’m always deciding how I want my suit to look on my body. Men, not so much because they basically for the most part have an apron, a jacket, cuffs, vest, collar or dickey and other embellishments to the shirt, pants, shoes, boots and whatever else of their personal choosing.
But, for me, every year is different. Some of the ways you’ll know my suit is that now, I wear long-to-the-ankle skirts or dresses. So, it becomes obvious that, number one, I’m not beading the whole dress. I wear jackets or shoulder stoles based on the formal West African Iborun or Ipele ( shoulder sash) embellished with narrative beadwork, rhinestone designs as well as amulets of sacred significance. The parts closest to my body are devoid of beadwork, that facilitates ease of cleaning.
And so then you create your images, then it comes to decorating – they call it hooking up – how you going to hook your suit up? And when you start hooking it up, you may see that you need more stonework to bring a patch out. So, you may create some broaches to go around the patch. So, as I said it’s a constant refining it, but you start, for me, you put down the basic stuff, the bare bones, and you just embellish from that. Embellish after that.
Mardi Gras Indian Parades
Meg: So then, as far as parading, I think most readers will be familiar with Mardi Gras, but are there other occasions where typically the gangs are parading?
Cherice: On Saint Joseph’s Day, which is March 19th, they traditionally come out in the evening.
Meg: What is St. Joseph’s Day?
Cherice: March 19th. It’s another day that Indians come out in a traditional manner and meet each other, but it’s at night. New Orleans is a Catholic city. According to what some elders relayed to me, Italian-Americans and African Americans lived in the same neighborhoods. The Italians had the St. Joseph altars and the Indians kind of came out because the neighborhood was alive in kind of like a homage to them.
In any event, there are funeral rituals where people will dress out, for, usually for someone who had a high standing in the community. But if it’s a member of your group, you may dress out for that person because you’re giving them the respect of giving them what we would call a proper sendoff.
So, you’ll see the Indians and there’s actually a ritual when the Indians will flank the casket on both sides and sing the prayer song. And it just depends on how far they take that, because they may take it and they may lift the casket, which is called tipping or toasting the casket where they raise it three times in the air literally over their heads before they put it in the hearse. Often they do something that’s a little more subdued, it just depends. Younger chiefs, they’ll sing “Indian Red” and they hurry up and get to the fast part. But others may take their time, and do all three verses, which is the dirge verse, a humming verse, and then a more celebratory verse.
Whatever – I’m not sure what the words are but it’s one where you can dance. But the first verse you shouldn’t dance. It’s not celebratory, it’s a dirge. Even this is very West African. They do dirges in West Africa, and those versions – and the version for funerals is very different from the first verse, when you come out on Carnival week, because when you do it for a funeral, the lead singer may actually talk about the person.
Meg: You have these specific occasions when you mask Indian. The rest of the year, what are the activities of the gang?
Cherice: Some groups participate in their parades. On Carnival Day and St. Joseph’s Day, you have to find the Indians basically. If you came here you’d have to drive around and find them. I think you ought to come to where it naturally occurs. If you don’t want to come in an African-American neighborhood on Carnival Day or look for us, you’re not experiencing a tradition. The second reason is people are out there with professional cameras taking pictures, monetizing them.
When we were doing this on Carnival, St. Joseph funerals, it’s from your heart. Any other time is a business. You’re extracting me from the community and you need to pay for that. You need to pay for your comfort of being able to do this and watch. We pay our children. The children get checks.
Meg: What will they get a check for?
Cherice: If we do a performance outside of Carnival. Like we performed at a festival. Every child got a check for $50.
Meg: The Jazz Fests are all paid?
Cherice: Yes, they are. They are paid. Then we’ll keep some money to buy some bulk supplies so they have access to like you need beads, you need to come and get them because I got a whole bunch of beads. [laughs] The kickback from some photographers is their First Amendment right to take our picture, sell it for $2,000, not identify you. People have walked out, because the analogy I make is that it’s a contemporary colonial paradigm. When we work on these suits, we often work from sunup to sundown. We put our soul into this suit, and you come back into the community and go big game hunting, get your best shot, and put us on the wall and sell us to the highest bidder.
Meg: Tell me a little bit about your role, what the responsibilities are?
Cherice: I’m the Queen of the Guardians of the Flame, Maroon Society. Well for me, and I can only speak for me, for me it means truly being a Guardian of the Flame. And my father refers to the flame as the culture.
That is why we already have children with us, that’s why I’m very cognizant of my public persona, because every time I step out of the house, I step out as the Queen of the Guardian of the Flame. So, I have to embody that, and I do. I really do. For instance, when I was on a television show, Treme, I would never hold an alcoholic beverage, because we have children, and I always lead by example. Not to say they shouldn’t drink alcohol, but if they want to do that it needs to be their decision, and not anything that I have said, that’s a cool thing to do.
Meg: Can you tell me about the role of women?
Cherice: It’s gang-specific, so each gang has a different role. My father told me when I first started masking that my role was that of a mere embellishment, that if a chief was pretty, he was even prettier if he had a queen. Women’s lib has not made it to this tradition, but for me it’s a way of finding your voice without stepping on the traditions and the protocols. What I’ve done is to document the tradition in a number of ways through collaborations, book projects. I work with our community radio station WWOC. That is what I do in my role as a participant, an anthropologist, and a queen.
Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Queen’s Choice Award
Meg: I understand that you instituted the Queen’s Choice Award. Tell me about that.
Cherice: In the beginning, the Hall of Fame gave five awards. One was chosen by the Mardi Gras Indian Council, one by the Backstreet Museum. One through consensus of a cadre of community members and the others were chosen by the school site staff and students.
The first year we wanted to give one to Aeldora “Dee Dee” Harper. She was an ancestor and they said, ‘Oh no, just deal with the men.’ Whenever I would throw a name on the table of a woman, they never voted for her. After a while, it’s like “Hey, this is the Hall of Fame. We started it. I don’t need your approval. We’re just going to have a Queen’s Choice Award. The first one I’m choosing.” [laughs] Self-actualizing.
Meg: Tell me about a couple award recipients.
Cherice: The first one was Barbara Sparks who was chosen because she loved this tradition. She became an ancestor in 2008. She wanted every person who participated to be the best person they could be, and as a teacher, that resonated in my soul in a very deep way. She had been doing it a long time when she received the first Queen’s Choice in 2005.
In 2006 or 2007 I saw Barbara Sparks, and I just went up to give her a kiss and make pleasantries. She was like, ‘Uh-uh. You need to meet me as a queen.’ She told me, “You’re queen when you wake up and you’re queen when you go to sleep. You’re queen throughout the day. And when you see me, you better come to me like a queen.’
And she made me go back, dance, meet her, and then she greeted me. I’m talking to her as I’m approaching her, “I’m the Queen. I’m the Queen of the Guardians of the Flame. Come to see the Big Queen! I’m the one! I’m the Queen! I’m the Queen”.
She was an older Queen and she stood there. When I got in front of her I bowed down to her. I said, “I see you, pretty Queen. I see the pretty Queen. The one they’re talking about, the one I love so much, that’s the Queen I love, the one that’s gonna show me the way, open the door, open the past. That’s the Queen, Queen of the Yellow Jackets. That’s the Queen I love.” And she just smiled with her arms folded and as I closer, she opens up and shows me her whole smile, and then she welcomes me to hug her. And we hug and greet and she tells me, “I’m the Queen” and she might tell me something like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to see you do, baby. When you took on, you meet them with purpose. You meet them whatever; you stand there and let them come to you. Hold your space. Hold your space, that’s kind of stuff.
Meg: That’s fantastic. I love it. It’s declaring yourself. It’s paying your respects to her. It sounds like a very affirming tradition.
Cherice: It is. Barbara was my elder in the tradition. I call her my Elder Queen. She was like an auntie that really spoils you, and you know she loves you and you love her. When she sees you, she breaks into a smile and you know it’s all love and you break into a smile. She knows it’s all love for her. That’s the kind of relationship I had with her. But at the same time, she was a gentle general. She would guide you in a way that you knew she was guiding you just as a general with gentle arms. It was the methodology of guiding you that you followed her. When she moved a certain way you moved a certain way. You just knew to follow her.
And if I did something wrong in greeting her, a protocol breeched, she’s gonna tell me, don’t ever do this. Don’t turn. She always told me never to turn my back on other Queens. Never turn your back, always keep your front. It’s a little ritual.
My uncle always told me, look them in the eye when you’re going towards them. No matter who it is, look them directly in the eye. Don’t look around. Don’t look to the side. Look them in the eye. Let them know you’re coming for them to let them see you pretty, you’re coming for them strong and you’re coming for them as a guardian. You will always then look them in the eye.
Meg: That’s a great way. That’s great instruction for life.
Cherice: Yeah. Face them.
There are rites of passage within the tradition. We recently developed a play about how we, as African Americans, had been severed from our ancestral homeland and how we’ve created rites of passage through cultural manifestations, through culinary tradition.
One of those rites of passage was canning okra with my grandmother. And I went up through the ranks of that tradition. When you were very young you may have counted the rings. You know the rings that go on the jars? They may have told you to go get ten rings or count out ten rings for them and you would put them on the table. As a three or four-year-old, that was a task you could do.
My grandmother was very, very cautious with hot stuff. She never, ever let me handle those hot jars of okra once it came out of that bath. I don’t know if she’s seen somebody get scalded or there was something that dropped and burned someone once. She was always so protective of us not getting burned, not getting injured, but she wanted us to know how to do it. And, she definitely didn’t need to can okra. You can get in stores, whatever. But it was something that she did with her daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters, that she passed on and it was so communal and it was so beautiful. At the time, I knew it was special but I didn’t know it was as special as it is. Having gone to West Africa, studied anthropology and had time to do real reflection and observation, I appreciate it much more on this side.
Mardi Gras Indian Gang Roles
Meg: Yes, we can appreciate things so much more sometimes in hindsight. I’d like to ask about a couple of the other roles within the groups. Could describe the chief scout and the spy boy and what those roles mean?
Cherice: Well a spy boy is just that. He goes out and he looks for other groups so that you’ll have the ritual meeting of the two groups. So, in old days he may have actually had a pair of binoculars and a spyglass. The chief scout is a scout for the chief. That person has the ability to move throughout the group. The spy boy has a stationary position of looking in front of the group.
All those things are used, but it’s covert, so when they’re throwing those signals back to the chief, the chief needs to be able to catch the signal. The chief is not going to get out of his position, he’s going to send the wild man up who’s like security for the group to find out what’s happening, straighten it out, send a signal back. But at the end of the day, it’s the chief that makes all of the decisions.
Meg: Can you describe the origins of these roles and the situations that they’re used in?
Cherice: Everybody has a set position in the group. It’s aligned so you have the spy boy, the flag boy, the scout; you have the queens, the chiefs, the wild man or the medicine man, which can move through. And then you may have a trail chief who’s behind the chief, who basically watches the chief’s back but if another gang tries to approach from the back that person can turn the gang around.
There’s a ritual meeting on Carnival Day. My father had this rule or this protocol for him that you should not meet a person if you weren’t dressed up. You speak to them but you don’t meet them as a ritual because you don’t have your suit on. Basically, without his suit on, he wouldn’t meet people as a chief. He would greet them, of course, but not meet them in the manner of a chief.
The meeting looks helter skelter but it’s very structured. There’s a methodology to it. So, the Spy Boy from one group meets the Spy Boy from another group. Then, the next position traditionally would be the flag boy. The two flag boys meet until you get to the two Chiefs. In the ritual, you’re introducing yourself. You’re talking about your suits. You’re talking about your boots. As my sister says, Mardi Gras Indians were the first rappers and the first people to wear bling.
Meg: So everybody has a role.
Cherice: It’s like a military operation, in that you’re looking for your enemy. You want to sneak up on your enemy whenever possible, because, it’s a war game, basically. But it’s a game; you’re not trying to kill people. It’s a game. It’s like the military. I don’t know what you call it, there’s word for it –
Cherice: It’s a military thing where they sneak up on the people. It’s a warrior culture, definitely a warrior culture, so it’s almost like guerilla warfare but not hurting anybody.
Meg: I’m wondering if you can describe why tradition meant so much to your father, and why in turn it means so much to you.
Cherice: Well, as with anything, it’s almost like you’re on a parallel track. You’re traditional, but just because you are who you are and you live in this world, you’re also evolving a greater understanding. Some of the things that remain constant are the use of beads and feathers, narrative, respect for the elder, respect for children, guidance for children, but a lot of the other stuff is evolving. For instance, in the old days my daddy used to make my son’s aprons and he used to bend coat hangers and hooked the apron together. My mother evolved and innovated where she uses Velcro. But at first, my daddy was like, “Oh no, we do it with coat hangers.” But after my mama did it on a sewing machine with Velcro, he was like, “Well, basically that’s an innovation I can live with, that’s easy.”
Carnival Day for Mardi Gras Indians
Meg: It’s Carnival morning. Walk me through your day.
Cherice: Well, it’s a lot of chaos that morning. Chances are you did not go to sleep or if you did you went to sleep for two or three hours. You get a serious adrenaline rush and you can go until you stop, but when you stop, you’re dead.
Meg: And is this because you’ve been sewing up until this point, or are there other things going on that you’re getting ready?
Cherice: If you didn’t go to sleep it’s because you were sewing, trust me. If you finish, you’re going to sleep. But if you’re not finished, you’re not going to sleep. You’re going to sew until you can’t sew. So, it’s a lot of chaos, the night before if you’re not finished. In the morning, it’s a lot of excitement, especially for us because we have the children that gather in the room. And for me, I am swelling with pride when I see them because I’m one of the last people to walk out the door. I’m swelling with pride when I see them walk out the door because it’s just the joy of seeing children happy, and knowing their place in a tradition, and carrying it forward, carrying it forward with dignity, pride, and pride – that’s two, three, and even one-year-olds.
Mardi Gras Indian culture involves generations of family, and teaches values of respect, dignity and empowerment.
Meg: Then when you walk out the door, are you walking to meet your fellow gang members?
Cherice: When you walk out the door initially, you walk out to the prayer song, so they call your position, like, “Look at our spy boy,” so the spy boy goes up. Once the whole group is assembled, they call the last person out, which is usually the big chief. This year it will be me because my son is not masking. So, I’ll be the last person to be called out. When I’m called out, we will sing the song together. The humming, then as we sing the celebratory verse, we will begin our procession through the neighborhood, to make our stops.
Meg: Can you tell me a little bit about the role in terms of how it relates to the suits and preparing for any celebrations?
Cherice: Everything for me has to be rooted in a historical and cultural context. To talk about the imagery on the suits, you know I wear Adinkra symbols. Adinkra symbols come from Ghana, from the Ashanti people. The main reason is to root an African American tradition that is clearly, without a doubt, rooted in West African practices.
I’ll say “Okay, I’m a rising phoenix, this symbolizes the rising of the world” and then people may come back and say “Well, why do you have that?” and I’ll say “Okay, that is the Adinkra symbol Akoma, which means patience and endurance.” So that symbolizes that what’s happening in my life, that I know it’s just episodic. It’s not forever, but I need to have patience and endurance so I can get on the other side of that.
Adinkra symbols are beautiful and they say such wonderful things, and it’s a way to be connected to who I am. The symbol for our group is Sankofa, so you’ll see that on our group. There are two representations with Sankofa. One is the war god with some extra embellishments and the other is a duck with his head turned back with an egg in his beak to represent to knowing your past but moving forward to the future with purpose and direction. That’s the Guardians of the Flame symbol. That’s our gang symbol. But each person in the group can pick a symbol for their symbol.
My son’s symbol is a warrior symbol, although I have co-opted it many times. My symbol is the hen’s foot, which kind of represents the mama hen. There’s a little saying something like the mother hen will put her foot on the chick but she won’t hurt him. It’s only to guide the child. My mom’s symbol is Gye Nyame, which symbolizes the power of God and I fear no one because God has me. Then there is the symbol for guardian, which is like a star but it’s not a star because it has like ten points with a circle in the middle. I love circles because circles, to me, represent continuity and unbrokenness.
The Adinkra symbols are a way to reconnect with who you are in the most basic sense, and a way to stitch yourself back to your ancestral home. I know who I am because I remember it in in the marrow of my bones.
Visit the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum and Cultural Center
The Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum and Cultural Center (DHSMCC) serves to preserve and positively perpetuate the authentic indigenous culture of all individuals who masquerade as Mardi Gras Indians through mutually beneficial collaborations among the tradition bearers, academic institutions, individuals, organizations, and communities to foster greater understanding of the unique Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
The DHSMCC is affiliated with the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, co-founded in 1998 by Dr. Roslyn Smith and Cherice Harrison-Nelson to honor the memory of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame works year-round to create community among, honor, and educate about the individuals and groups who create and uphold the arts and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. Annually in August, they dedicate a week to celebrate the achievements and the unity of the Nation. Their work is supported by grants and private donations.
You can make an appointment to visit by calling (504) 214-6630. The museum is located at 1930 Independence St.
Header photo courtesy of Thomas Knoll