Mardi Gras Indians
Isaac ‘Mr Ike’ Edwards Jr, died Wednesday at Heritage Manor nursing home in Houma, where he lived since Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home. Edwards was the last link to an earlier time in Mardi Gras Indian history. Back then, Indians had to save every penny and nickel to assemble their suits, dying discarded turkey feathers and salvaging beads off old ball gowns.
After earning early awards from New Orleans own Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, Edward continued to earn praise for his artwork. A few years ago, Edward and Herreast Harrison, Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s mother (a close friend of Edward), received a commission from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee to create a butterfly apron that became part of the Museum’s permanent collection.
Big Chief Edward in 1952
Edward was lucid right until he passed, and one point he made regularly was the Indian culture he grew up with was not violent. This flies in the face of conventional Mardi Gras Indian history, according the late Larry Bannock, Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters, I’m gonna mask that morning if it costs me my life. That morning you pray and ask God to watch over you, cause everybody is bucking for number one.
After joining the Army Air Corps and the 92nd Infantry Division during the WWII, Edward started working as a longshoreman, which he kept for 38 years. He retired from costuming in 1952. However, after befriending Harrison-Nelson, the daughter of his long time friend Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr, he started sewing once more After being invited by Roselyn Smith, the principal of Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School and Harrison-Nelson, Edward started teaching the Indian traditions to a younger generation and helping to make butterfly patches and suits for the Young Guardian of the Flame.
Working with students rejuvenated Edward. I want to be remembered as a great man who loved children, he said. Up until a month before his demise, Edwards continued to sew, still able to thread a needle without the aid of glasses in spite of his advanced age.
Last month during his hospitalization, he instructed many of New Orleans big chiefs about his funeral. Edward asked Roselyn Smith to make chocolate cake for funeral attendees. He created his own list of speakers for his funeral. He asked that the tune Indian Red be sung during his service and again when the procession was on the street. He wanted lots of Indians and a lot of dancing.
I was out on Jackson Avenue by 7:30 am on Fat Tuesday. I walked from Claiborne where I was dropped off to Dryades, where I was supposed to meet a friend who didn’t make it because he drank too much on Lundi Gras. Zulu was on time around 8 am and reached me by 8:30 on Jackson and Daneel. I had 5 coconuts by 9 am, and was walking to Rex at Harmony and St. Charles at 9:30. My good friend Billy Bonsack lives a block off St. Charles on Prytania and Harmony. I see a lot of parades during the season since Billy’s house is a block off the St. Charles route. Super convenient and makes parading a lot more comfortable.
It was a really warm Carnival season, and Mardi Gras day didn’t fail us. It was 70+ degrees when I hit the streets yesterday, and it only got warmer. I was dressed in a warm weather version of my purple, green and gold outfit, but I was still warm throughout the day.
Even though my basic Fat Tuesday routine doesn’t change much, there are always new wrinkles and fresh sights and sounds that can’t be missed. I started the season marching in the Krewe du Vieux’s Krewe of Underwear, marching through the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. This year’s march was especially fun. I recommend getting involved in parading for Carnival if you never have. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss.
I wear a purple, green and gold outfit, and Zulu always responds to people who have nice costumes. I don’t get any coconuts from the first few floats but after a while, I do real well. They respond very well to my purple, green and gold costume, and especially my very fancy headdress, worn for the first time this year. I had to expand or my girlfriend Sue did, the headdress, which originally was a little too small. Here I am on Jackson Avenue waiting for Zulu. Zulu is one of the great parades. It’s very unique from beginning to end, and features a most unusual throw, the Zulu Coconut.
I’ll be adding photos of my 5 coconuts later today when I pick them up from my friend’s house on Prytania. I’ve got several bags of throws, garnered over the entire parade season.
Beautifully Costumed Mardi Gras Indian
As I was walking from Zulu to Rex, I passed this gang of unbelievably colorful and decorative Mardi Gras Indians. The beauty and majesty of their single colored feather outfits is a marvel to behold. My good friend June Victory of June Victory and the Bayou Renegades helped me find them. They remain among the most beautiful sights on a Mardi Gras Day.
Mardi Gras Indians on a Mardi Gras Day
After REX I started heading home with another friend, Slogan. He walked with me through Central City and saw the Indian gang. He was very impressed, as I was. We finally split up after a couple of miles of walking, and eventually Sue picked me up at Galvez and Canal after hitting a lot of traffic on Broad due to the Zulu floats heading to the Zulu buildings on Broad.
For the last few years, my Fat Tuesday routine has changed a bit. Now I go out to eat in the late afternoon. Last year it was Mandina’s. This year is was pizza and beer (for girlfriend Sue) at Theo’s on North Carrollton.
The movie, We Won’t Bow Down, was shot over eight years by first time director Christopher Leroy Bower. A native of Ashville, North Carolina, Bower began conducting interviews right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in September 2005. He learned about Mardi Gras Indian culture from Steve Mann, who co-produced and photographed We Won’t Bow Down.
Bower first saw Mardi Gras Indians on the first St Joseph’s Day after Katrina and was very impressed with the beauty, resilience and power of this New Orleans-only Carnival tradition. He ran into the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi and Victor Harris, who was singing Calling All My People, a prayer. He found it a chilling experience which he couldn’t forget.
He wanted the Indians to tell their own story without any narration or Indian ‘experts’ to dilute their message.
I work with some Mardi Gras indians and have recently put together Indian funk bands in New Orleans such as the Spy Boy All-Stars featuring June Victory and June Squared with June Yamagishi.They have played the Maple Leaf Bar, Tipitina’s, and Chickie Wah Wah among other major Crescent City venues. I too find the Indian culture very unique and beautiful. I’ve written some Indians up on my Mardi Gras Music Series, here’s a couple of links for the Wild Magnolias and June Victory and the Bayou Renegades, appearing next Thursday from 6 to 8 pm at the Ogden Museum, 925 Camp Street as part of their Ogden After Hours Music series.
Around the nation, audiences have been enthralled by the documentary. The crowd was enthusiastic at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where the movie had its world premiere. We took some of the guys from the Ninth Ward Hunters and the Comanche Hunters to perform in Los Angeles, Bower said. They did a procession through the Crenshaw Mall, and to just release that on people randomly and to see the response, that was amazing. People were coming from the parking garage, the balconies, little kids were dancing. There was a connection that defies intellectual understanding. It was just in the spirit of what was happening.
Actor, producer and community activist Wendell Pierce saw the doc in Los Angeles and is now a major proponent of the film. His Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association is involved in the April 12 New Orleans premiere at the National WWII Museum.
We Won’t Be Bowed Down
National WWII Museum
Solomon Victory Theatre
Red Carpet Screening 7:15 pm
General Screening 9:15 pm
The Mohawk Hunters from Algiers came to Orleans Parish Prison to show inmates how to sew patches for Mardi Gras Indian outfits. It is rare for a story for one of my two blogs to be appropriate for the other, but that is the case here. For me at least, that is cause for a small celebration.
Central to this story is the Alternative Learning Institute (ALI) and Tyrone Casby, principal of ALI and Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters. The project is the Mohawk Hunters Cultural Journey and they brought a message of transformation from violence to pride. In the past, a culture of violence permeated the Mardi Gras Indian culture. Over time, feelings of pride in their sewing efforts and attaining proficiency in their craft replaced the violence.
Roughly 42 inmates took part in the program. Each participant worked and completed their own patch. The address I found on Google maps for 3000 Perdido St., New Orleans, LA 70119 is Orleans Parish Prison and that’s the address for ALI.
The Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians at Algiers RiverFest.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman praised the work of Casby and the Orleans Parish School Board for its funding of the Alternative Learning Institute and the many people necessary to provide the courses and other programs to inmates who choose to sign up.
This was a Mardi Gras to remember. The police strike (NOPD) cancelled the parades in Orleans Parish, but Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes held all their parades. Much of organized Carnival was canceled in New Orleans, but all of the less organized groups came out as usual.
On Fat Tuesday morning we went to the west bank for Grela and the trucks, then headed back over the Mississippi River bridge to find the Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians. We found them, with Chief Jolly, Charles Neville on sax, and Aaron Neville smoking a joint with our little group! We really enjoyed our time with 2nd Chief Norman Bell, Chief Jolly (George Landry), Aaron and Charles Neville, and other Indians and musicians.
We were living on Robert Street off of Danneel St, so we were very close to where the Nevilles all lived back then, on Valence Street. This was right before the Nevilles became major label fodder and began to travel the world in earnest as the pride of New Orleans, the Neville Brothers.
We hung out and followed the Wild Tchoupitoulas for a couple of hours before heading the the French Quarter and a party on Royal Street. These uptown Mardi Gras Indians were followed by a crowd of about 20 people. It was really an enjoyable aspect of Fat Tuesday that year.
Since that time, we’ve gotten into a bit of a fun rut on Fat Tuesday. We set up on St. Charles for Rex and the Trucks, and catch some of Zulu on Jackson Avenue before. There is so much to do and see at the New Orleans Carnival you can hardly go wrong, as long as you travel in a small group for safety reasons. We always bring a number of really excellent foods and drinks for Fat Tuesday. We BBQ, bring hot gumbos, sushi, traditional desserts like king cakes, mandel brot, decadent chocolate cakes, chocolate babka, etc. Not all of that each year, but I always make a half dozen Po-boys in advance for guests and friends who show up during the number of hours we’re on St. Charles enjoying the parades and trucks.
We always bring a king cake, that’s positively necessary.