Exclusive Interview: Behind the Scenes with a Mardi Gras Indian

Mardi Gras Indians are an integral part of the Mardi Gras tradition. Known for their secrecy and elaborate, handmade costumes, the Mardi Gras Indians began parading during a time in which African Americans were prohibited from participating in Mardi Gras krewes. With names like the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Yellow Pocahontas, and the Young Navaho, Indian tribes possess formal hierarchies made up of roles such as Chiefs, Queens, Flag Boys, and Wild Men, and make impromptu appearances throughout a variety of New Orleans neighborhoods on Mardi Gras Day and on “Super Sunday,” the Sunday following St. Joseph’s Day. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Queen Reesie, Guardians of the Flame; Photo by Jeffrey Ehrenreich

In August, the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame celebrated its 15th anniversary, kicking off with an event in historic Congo Square and culminating in an awards and induction ceremony to honor prominent members of the Mardi Gras Indian community. This year, they released a Spy Boy Year Book, the first in a series dedicated to honoring different Indian roles. “The reason we started with the Spy Boy is because the Spy Boy is the first person you see on Mardi Gras day,” says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, co-founder of the Hall of Fame. “They’re out there ahead of the gang looking for other Mardi Gras Indian groups for their group to meet.”

In addition to hosting this weeklong celebration, the Hall of Fame provides a variety of services to protect and honor the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, convening panels, assembling in-school programming, providing social services to Mardi Gras Indians, donating sewing supplies to children who want to mask (create their own costume and participate in Indian parades), and partnering with the Sewing Marching Project to distribute machines to Mardi Gras Indians.

To learn more about this New Orleans tradition, we spoke with Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame curator and Queen of the Guardians of the Flame, Cherice Harrison-Nelson.

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Flavorwire: How do Mardi Gras Indians view their relationship to Native Americans?

Cherice Harrison-Nelson: If you ask 20 Mardi Gras Indians, they will have twenty different responses. I will tell you my response, and this is solely what I believe, Cherice Harrison Nelson — I don’t speak for anyone else. I believe this tradition is an homage to the mutual struggles of First Nation, Native Americans, people of African descent, black folks, African American — whatever they may want to be called — but it’s an homage to the mutual struggle for freedom and self actualization. This tradition is a living testament that people of African descent did not forget their ancestral homeland.

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Big Chief Brian Nelson, Guardians of the Flame; Photo by Jeffrey Ehrenreich

Many think it is cloaked in the feathers and the finery. I think that it is not cloaked. I feel that it is really not a masquerade. It’s putting forth your authentic self. That’s what I feel I do. When I wear traditional western clothes, that is the masquerade. That is what I wear to fit into this western society. The ritual attire that I create when I come out on Mardi Gras Day is what I choose.

[…] It is what roots me. It is what gives me hope. It is a way of life. It is the way that I choose — I don’t even choose — it chooses me. You are called to do this. It is not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you can’t do anything about it.

Walter Sandifer by Kim Welsh
Walter Sandifer; Photo by Kim Welsh

FW: So how would someone else answer that question?

CHN: A lot of people say it’s because Native Americans welcomed Africans into their groupings. That may be why you do it, but I don’t do it for that. I do it to say that in America, sometimes people have to fight for freedom and to be themselves, and this is a place where I can be myself.

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Big Chief Brian Nelson, Guardians of the Flame; Photo by Eric Waters

FW: In 1993, your tribe, The Guardians of the Flame, attended the largest powwow in North America, the Gathering of the Nations. What was that like?

CHN: That was phenomenal, just to be involved with thousands and thousands of First Nation — Native Americans, indigenous people — whatever they prefer to be called. It was phenomenal because it was an opportunity for us to participate with people who had some of the same struggles. They did not bow down. That is so important. It’s their warrior spirit: “I will not bow down; I still remember; I still know who I am.”

FW: Did you feel welcomed?

CHN: Yes. At first, a few didn’t understand. And I’ll never forget, my father went to speak to one of the organizers, George, and he was from the Seneca Nation. My father was stationed at Fort Niagara when he was in the service, and he would visit the Seneca People, so they influenced his style of dance. So he [George] explained — in this large arena — what we were doing, and they welcomed us with open arms. The whole arena clapped. […] Our children — my son and my nephew — had an opportunity to see that other people had the same struggles that we had and how important it is for you to remember who you are, to remember your history, and to positively perpetuate it and carry it on. You are the Guardian of the Flame. You are the inheritor of something important, something sacred, and you must guard it and pass it onto the next generation.

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Little Chief Kevin Cooley Jr., Young Guardians of the Flame; Photo by Jeffrey Ehrenreich

FW: In your artist’s statement, you emphasize you are a woman in a male-dominated tradition. As a woman, how do you envision your role within the Mardi Gras Indian community?

CHN: I am a true student believer in the protocols of the tradition. This is a tradition that has been maintained by strong African American men for hundreds of years. I don’t want to do anything to be in conflict with that. But at the same time, we need to figure out, as men and women, how to work together to advance the culture. A rising tide raises all the boats — we need to remember that. […]

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Queen Reesie, Guardians of the Flame; Photo by Jeffrey Ehrenreich

Women were viewed, to quote some of the chiefs, starting with my daddy, we were mere embellishments. If a Chief was pretty, then he was prettier with a Queen. Chief Otto said that Queens are accessories for the Chief, so we were just looked at as superficial individuals. All the women have always helped men to sew; they’ve always masked; they were kind of invisible. So how do you change that paradigm but at the same time follow the Big Chief? It’s a very delicate balance. There are still men that have problems. They call me a little girl. I’m 53 years old. I’m not a little girl.

FW: Many Indians spend up to a year making a suit. Could you describe what your year of preparation entails?

CHN: I start by meditating on it for at least a month. I may start on sewing little things that I know I’ll have on my suit, but before I really start sewing, I think about it and revise it a number of times in my mind. After I meditate on it, I’ll select a theme, and then once I select my theme, I’ll start thinking of my big patches, the way I want the suit to look on my body, what kind of dress I want, what kind of headdress I want. It changes throughout the year, but I start with a basic goal, and then I modify from there. Sometimes, my themes are topical, other times they’re historical and other times they’re just what I feel like doing.