“Big Chief Wears a Golden Crown”

Masking IndianThis week Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a panel discussion with two leaders in the tradition of New Orleans Black Masking Indians. Darryl Montana, great-grandson of one of the tradition’s founders, and Demond Melancon, whom Montana calls the “world’s best beader” described masking’s origins and modern significance.

Masking—familiar to viewers of the television series Treme, (to my regret, only four seasons long!) in which Clarke Peters played Big Chief Albert Lambreaux—is a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition that has various origin stories. In part it may have begun as resistance to early rules prohibiting negroes from wearing feathers, in part as a shout-out to the Native Americans who helped runaway slaves, and in part as a strong expression of individuality and pride in an era of repression.

The Chiefs of New Orleans’s nearly 40 black masking tribes make one suit a year. Each suit has multiple parts, can weigh up to 150 pounds, and takes about 5000 hours to construct. Because masking is a “competitive sport,” Montana said, the costumes are generally made in secret, their design and significance revealed only when the Indians come out on Carnival Day (Mardi Gras).

In recognition of Melancon’s artistic skills, in 2012, the elders of the Mardi Gras Indian community dubbed him Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters, with his very own tribe in the Lower Ninth Ward. Increasingly, the creation of suits is considered a significant contemporary art form, and its best practitioners keep pushing the envelope of creative possibility. Melancon’s suit on display at the Lewis Center tells the story of an enslaved Ghanian prince brought to New Orleans in the 1830’s. He lost an arm after a dispute with police, and was thereafter called Bras Coupé. Every beaded element of this stunning suit carries symbolic significance.

masking Indian suit

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Montana is the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters Black Masking Indian Tribe and made the lavish lavender suit pictured. Completion often involves family members and select friends.

Montana explained that he does not want “to take what I learned from the Chief to the grave with me,” and now makes a concerted effort to engage the next generation in the masking tradition. “You have to keep (young people) busy,” he said, and he believes that through the intensity of the suit-making process, the time commitment, and the camaraderie of working on a culturally meaningful project, he’s found a way to do that.

Cocktail Party Conversation Stopper

In case this slipped by you too, the Big Chief mentioned the massive amount of Mardi Gras beads bead-deviling New Orleans’s storm drains. Last fall 93,000 pounds-worth were excavated from merely a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue! Of course, they were wet.

Intrigued? Here’s More + Pictures!

The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald Lewis
Mardi Gras Indians
by Michael Smith
From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians – Joroen Dewulf’s new theory about the origins of the black masking Indian tradition
Treme from David Simon and George Pelecanos for HBO. Watch the beginning for free.

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