In black areas of New Orleans, another Mardi Gras struts, rich with tradition

`Indian gangs' defiantly don their feathers

Katrina dampens but can't drown a black tradition

March 01, 2006|By ROBERT LITTLE | ROBERT LITTLE,SUN REPORTER

NEW ORLEANS -- The parades started early yesterday, rolling over crushed beads from the night before and littering the streets anew with the colors and sounds and unmistakable evidence that it was Mardi Gras again in this broken city.

But there were no parades in Gerttown. Instead there was waiting. The people in Gerttown stood in the gray and curbless streets, or sat in rusty chairs outside their crumbled houses, and waited for the other Mardi Gras. The black Mardi Gras.

In normal years, Big Chief Larry Bannock would step out of his house on Edinburgh Street wrapped in a wild and glorious suit of feathers and beadwork, join his "gang" of similarly bejeweled "Indians," then dance and sing through the streets until the collective spirit of Gerttown was alight.

The neighborhood's families would follow behind and join in, then they'd head to another neighborhood and find another gang of Mardi Gras Indians, until all of Uptown came alive.

But nothing is normal in New Orleans anymore. All day cars drove past Bannock's blue-tarped shack, drivers stopping to ask whether the Big Chief was "masking" this year. Lionel Fields, 64, sat outside a temporary trailer nearby, with a beer in one hand and a tambourine in the other, doing the only thing he has ever done on Mardi Gras day - waiting for the Big Chief and his Golden Star Hunters to march by.

"If it's Mardi Gras, ain't nothing to do but wait here and see how pretty he's gonna be looking, how wild the Indians gonna get," said Fields. "When he comes around that corner, it's gonna excite everything, you watch. That will be my Mardi Gras, when I see the Big Chief marching through Gerttown again."

Mardi Gras arrived in New Orleans on schedule yesterday, with trinket-throwing floats on St. Charles Avenue and leering drunks on Bourbon Street. The festivities in the city's southern section were, by most assessments, a success of spirit and fortitude, if not economics. The crowds were smaller, but lively, locals said.

But so much of Mardi Gras takes place beyond the reach of the television cameras, out in the northern, run-down neighborhoods that don't make the pages of a travel brochure. There, in the city's predominantly black and poor communities, people celebrate not on parade routes or in the French Quarter but wherever their favorite gang of Mardi Gras Indians decides to go.

They gather in the streets, often outside a bar or club that serves as the gang's home, laughing and drinking and waiting for the Indians to emerge from the cars and houses around them.

The tradition dates back more than 100 years and remains deeply rooted in spirituality and a unique street etiquette. The gangs and their regular practices are often woven into the neighborhood's social life the way a school or church might be.

A typical Mardi Gras draws out 30 or more Indian gangs around New Orleans, and everyone has their loyalties and favorites. In Gerttown most people follow Bannock, but Big Chief Monk Boudreaux always attracts a throng farther south, and so do Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias.

"Every Mardi Gras since I was a kid, my daddy would bring me out here to see the Indians and walk the Second Line," said 46-year-old James Battiste, referring to the distinctly New Orleans tradition of forming a moving block party to follow Mardi Gras Indians around the city. "It's part of the culture, part of the history here. It's in your blood."

Despite the respect for tradition, there is little predictable about when and how an Indian gang might appear on Mardi Gras day. The lieutenants often arrive first, dancing and singing, wrapped in their armor of feathers and velvet, then calling for the Big Chief to lead them away. Each member plays a specific role - the "spy boy" marches ahead and watches for rival Indians, for instance - but all defer to the power and authority of the Big Chief. No one moves until and unless he says so.

It is an ad hoc celebration, with no defined route or repertoire, yet the craftsmanship of the costumes and the lyrical quality of the songs and chants often defy the informality. That something so colorful and beautiful can rise up from something so blighted is one of the miracles of New Orleans, as fans of the city's music and food so often attest.

"The Mardi Gras Indians are like an explosion of glory and grace in real time," said author Tom Piazza, who offered the Indians as a key exhibit in his post-Katrina book Why New Orleans Matters.

"They are, to me, the ultimate expression of the spirit and the life of New Orleans."

Anticipation and uncertainty are common feelings throughout the city's poor neighborhoods, many of which are still deserted shells. Several people who were gathered outside Bannock's house yesterday had not moved back to their mold-stricken homes but said this was the one day - the one moment, really - they had to return, no matter what. There was little worry that the Big Chief might not appear, if only because he had masked for 34 years already.

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