Friday, May 11, 2018

New book explores spirit of Fi Yi Yi and Mandingo warriors

By Katy Reckdahl
New Orleans Advocate

On Saturday morning, Big Chief Victor “Fi Yi Yi” Harris and his mighty percussionists, the Mandingo Warriors, sent the sounds of African drumming and Mardi Gras Indian chants far across the Fair Grounds, site of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Red was the color of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi tribe this year. Nearly everyone on the Jazz & Heritage stage Saturday morning was dressed in Indian suits made with red feathers and marabou, including the chief’s shadow, granddaughter Calsey Harris, 10, who has masked since she was a toddler.
Calsey, a student at Arthur Ashe Charter School, summed up the artistic and political sensibility she’s gained by sewing for hours with her PawPaw. “He’s showing everyone our culture so that they understand how we live. But he’s also trying to make a change,” she said.

Harris and his tribe are the subject of “Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors,” a 190-page oral history published this year by the Neighborhood Story Project and the Backstreet Cultural Museum. The coffee table book includes many photos, some from archives and friends and others snapped over the years by cultural anthropology professor Jeffrey Ehrenreich of the University of New Orleans.

On Saturday afternoon, Victor Harris was interviewed by Maurice Martinez on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage about the book and about his 53 years of "masking Indian." Since 1984, he’s reigned as big chief of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi tribe.

But on Saturday morning, the chief walked onto the Jazz & Heritage stage wearing yet another of his acclaimed suits. Harris’ suits differ from other local Indian suits in key ways: They are made entirely of layered beads and cowrie shells, without glue, staples and the sculpted cardboard sometimes used to underpin the three-dimensional Indian suits in his native 7th Ward.

Also, instead of the feathered crowns that typically frame the faces of Indian chiefs, Harris wears an African-style mask that covers his face and gives him more of a mystical look. He sews each intricate mask with careful detail, creating elaborately outlined openings for his eyes and mouth.

This unique needlework, which Harris designs and creates along with his “committee” of sewing hands, landed him a Prospect.1 retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2009.
But on stage, his shamanic side takes over. As others from his tribe chant traditional Indian numbers like “Shallow Water,” Harris preaches; he sermonizes; he calls to people’s better instincts.
That’s classic Fi Yi Yi.

On St. Joseph’s Night, when Harris roams the streets of New Orleans with his tribe, he’ll often stop under a streetlight and unleash poetic speeches backed by the beats of the Mandingo Warriors, including drummer Wesley Phillips and sewing committee stalwart Jack Robertson, who picks up a drum whenever the tribe hits the streets.

Asked how his activism fits with being an Indian, Harris gave a puzzled look. “It’s all together,” he said, describing the revolutionary and civil-rights spirit that he said fuels every Indian he knows.

That “won’t bow down” Indian mentality is what first made him into an activist, he said, recalling how he’d marched on City Hall along with others from the Tambourine & Fan Club during the early 1970s. The group demanded, successfully, that Mayor Moon Landrieu create a park from the abandoned, untended land under Interstate 10 at St. Bernard and North Claiborne avenues.
They dubbed the new green space Hunter’s Field, after the Hunters, a nickname for the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, where Harris got his start, "running flag" under legendary chief Allison “Tootie” Montana.

The new book makes clear that Harris’ ultimate focus is his community. Before Hurricane Katrina shut down Charity Hospital, he was a food-service supervisor there and the person to call whenever anyone in the 7th Ward needed to check on a hospitalized family member.

As a young man, he coached on the newly created Hunter’s Field, becoming a beloved, widely known figure whom children called Duck because he entertained them by imitating Donald Duck and waddling across the football field.

So by the early 1980s, when he formed his own Indian tribe, Harris already had a broad base of people who supported him.

In 1983, after a misunderstanding about a credit on a record, Harris was ousted from the Yellow Pocahontas. Though he later reconciled with Montana and other members of the Yellow Pocahontas, it was a rough moment. Harris had chanted on the tune, but instead of crediting Harris by name, the record producer had labeled it “Yellow Pocahontas,” angering other Indians and leaving him tribe-less.

Then, in 1984, he said, he had a vision one night and formed the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi, with a robust sewing committee to help sew his suit and a legion of children’s suits.

Over the year, deaths, sickness and arthritis have taken their toll on the committee, leaving just two. “It’s just me and Chief,” Robertson said Saturday.

Then there’s Calsey, the future of Fi Yi Yi, who plans to someday become one of the vaunted needles of the committee.

“When I’m ready, I will,” she said, with the confidence of a child who’s grown up as part of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Blaine Kern, the float maker

By Keith Spera
New Orleans Advocate

As Blaine Kern Sr. eyed the gaggle of tourists filing into Mardi Gras World’s gift shop, he flipped on his Mr. Mardi Gras grin, his calling card for nine decades and counting.
"I'm the guy who started this whole joint 70 years ago!" he announced, the opening line of his sales pitch for "A Tree in the Sea," the new children's book he created with his fourth wife, Holly.
The tourists smiled, listened politely, and moved on to the next attraction. Mardi Gras, it seems, is bigger than Blaine Kern.
Once upon a time, he might have disagreed.
What Popeyes kingpin Al Copeland was to chicken, Kern is to Carnival: a brash character who came from nothing, launched an unconventional empire in New Orleans, and lived large as a result.
Wrestle anacondas in Peru? Buy an aircraft carrier in Spain? Build a gondola over the Mississippi River? Marry a woman nearly 50 years his junior?
Kern has done that. He also almost single-handedly ushered in the modern era of Mardi Gras.
Blaine Kern Artists, the studio he founded in 1947, crafts the floats for more than a dozen of Carnival's most prominent parades, including Rex, Endymion, Muses, Bacchus, Orpheus and Zulu. Kern pioneered such parade razzle-dazzle as giant prop figures, double-decker floats, multi-unit floats, splashy lighting and animatronics. Inclusivity was another of his innovations.
Now 90, he is no longer directly involved with the studio's operation. But he still keeps tabs on the company and is still the legendary figurehead. Tourist buses still park beneath his name, spelled out with imposing, 6-foot-tall black letters on the exterior of Mardi Gras World’s massive riverfront studio/warehouse.
In decades past, his ego was just as imposing. But age has mellowed him. So, too, did several brushes with mortality, and a legal battle, resolved in 2015, that transferred full control of the studio to his son Barry Kern.
But in his reluctant retirement — and thanks in part to his wife’s gentle prodding — Blaine Kern has rediscovered who he was long ago: an artist.

Growing up poor

On Wednesday afternoon, Kern shuffled past Orpheus floats inside the Mardi Gras World warehouse, his jacket discreetly emblazoned with “Mr. Mardi Gras.” He exchanged warm greetings with artisans, tour guides and gift shop employees.
"This little girl ... she's a helluva sculptor," he said, introducing a young woman flecked with Styrofoam dust.
"Coming from you, that means a lot," gushed Alexandria McCrosky, whose mother, Tina, has painted Kern floats for more than 20 years.
In a chamber near the gift shop stood a different breed of Styrofoam sculptor: Pixie, a robot named for longtime, much-loved Kern Studios administrator Jerelyn "Pixie" Naquin, who died in 2010. A similar high-tech robot sculpts Space X rocket fuselages; Pixie sculpts Muses' float-sized rubber duckies.
Imagine if Kern had possessed such a robot when he started out.
"He was the robot,” Holly Kern said.
He grew up poor on Algiers Point with three sisters, now deceased. Their father, Roy, was a painter who liked to fish and drink. Blaine still remembers watching his dad fashion a primitive float atop a garbage wagon in 1932 for the inaugural Krewe of Alla parade on the West Bank.
Drafted into the Army in 1945, Blaine was shipped out to Korea at the end of World War II. He returned home to Algiers nearly two years later.
In exchange for medical services for his mother, he painted a mural for Dr. Henry LaRocca, the captain of Alla. LaRocca was so impressed that he invited Kern, then 19, to decorate Alla’s floats.
Recognizing a potentially lucrative business, Kern founded Blaine Kern Artists Inc. in 1947. Alla was his first steady client; he became the krewe's captain in 1957, a position he held for five decades. 
Blaine Kern Artists, the studio he founded in 1947, crafts the floats for more than a dozen of Carnival's most prominent parades, including Rex, Endymion, Muses, Bacchus, Orpheus and Zulu. Kern pioneered such parade razzle-dazzle as giant prop figures, double-decker floats, multi-unit floats, splashy lighting and animatronics. Inclusivity was another of his innovations.
Now 90, he is no longer directly involved with the studio's operation. But he still keeps tabs on the company and is still the legendary figurehead. Tourist buses still park beneath his name, spelled out with imposing, 6-foot-tall black letters on the exterior of Mardi Gras World’s massive riverfront studio/warehouse.
In decades past, his ego was just as imposing. But age has mellowed him. So, too, did several brushes with mortality, and a legal battle, resolved in 2015, that transferred full control of the studio to his son Barry Kern.
But in his reluctant retirement — and thanks in part to his wife’s gentle prodding — Blaine Kern has rediscovered who he was long ago: an artist.

Growing up poor

On Wednesday afternoon, Kern shuffled past Orpheus floats inside the Mardi Gras World warehouse, his jacket discreetly emblazoned with “Mr. Mardi Gras.” He exchanged warm greetings with artisans, tour guides and gift shop employees.
"This little girl ... she's a helluva sculptor," he said, introducing a young woman flecked with Styrofoam dust.
"Coming from you, that means a lot," gushed Alexandria McCrosky, whose mother, Tina, has painted Kern floats for more than 20 years.
In a chamber near the gift shop stood a different breed of Styrofoam sculptor: Pixie, a robot named for longtime, much-loved Kern Studios administrator Jerelyn "Pixie" Naquin, who died in 2010. A similar high-tech robot sculpts Space X rocket fuselages; Pixie sculpts Muses' float-sized rubber duckies.
Imagine if Kern had possessed such a robot when he started out.
"He was the robot,” Holly Kern said.
He grew up poor on Algiers Point with three sisters, now deceased. Their father, Roy, was a painter who liked to fish and drink. Blaine still remembers watching his dad fashion a primitive float atop a garbage wagon in 1932 for the inaugural Krewe of Alla parade on the West Bank.
Drafted into the Army in 1945, Blaine was shipped out to Korea at the end of World War II. He returned home to Algiers nearly two years later.
In exchange for medical services for his mother, he painted a mural for Dr. Henry LaRocca, the captain of Alla. LaRocca was so impressed that he invited Kern, then 19, to decorate Alla’s floats.
Recognizing a potentially lucrative business, Kern founded Blaine Kern Artists Inc. in 1947. Alla was his first steady client; he became the krewe's captain in 1957, a position he held for five decades. 
At the dawn of the super-krewe era 50 years ago, Blaine charged $5,000 per float. In 2013, Endymion's dazzling, 370-foot-long, nine-part re-creation of the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park made its debut. The price tag? $1.5 million.
Mardi Gras floats account for only half of the Kern company’s tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Under Barry Kern's stewardship, Kern Studios has expanded globally, constructing elaborate props and parades for such clients as Disney, Six Flags and Universal Studios. This weekend, Universal Studios in Orlando kicks off a 68-day Mardi Gras celebration featuring Kern floats.
Those three-dimensional, black-and-white-spotted cows that populate Chick-fil-A billboards across the country? All were born at the Kern Studios complex in New Orleans.
Opening Mardi Gras World to visitors created a major tourist destination. The facility is also leased for private functions, such as the Buku Music + Art Project each March.

Grand visionary

In the early days, Blaine got his hands dirty, drawing and painting floats. He eventually ceded such tasks to the company's growing stable of artisans, assuming the role of grand visionary.
Being Blaine Kern was its own full-time job. He started referring to himself as “Mr. Mardi Gras” after a trip to Portugal. In 1988, the Rex organization issued a proclamation making it official. “I'm not going to fight that," Kern said. Instead, he trademarked the term.
He could be loud and boisterous, and he rubbed some people the wrong way. More showman than businessman, administration was never his forte.
Not all his schemes panned out. He built much of the 1984 world’s fair in New Orleans — including the famous bare-breasted mermaids at the entrance — only to get stiffed by the fair’s financial failure.
The gondola he strung across the river for the fair never attracted enough riders to be viable. He lost money on the failed Jazzland amusement park in New Orleans East. In the 1980s, he partnered with a New York real estate tycoon named Donald Trump to develop property on the West Bank; the project fizzled.
And then there was the aircraft carrier.
The light carrier USS Cabot, known as the "Iron Woman," saw heavy action in World War II, surviving kamikaze hits. It was transferred to the Spanish navy in the 1960s and rechristened D├ędalo.
In the 1980s, Kern bought the decommissioned ship for $1. He planned to turn it into a museum and casino docked at Mardi Gras World; investors included his pal Harry Lee, the longtime Jefferson Parish sheriff.
It cost $344,000 in fuel to sail the ship to New Orleans; Kern also had to fly nearly 400 sailors home to Spain. The Cabot lingered on the Mississippi riverfront for years. But, Kern said, he and former Gov. Edwin Edwards couldn’t cut a deal on a casino license. In 1999, the carrier was sold at auction for scrap.
Kern fathered five kids during the first two of his four marriages. But in his own estimation, “I was young, filthy rich, and an (expletive) of the first magnitude where women were concerned.”
But very late in life, he finally found what he was looking for.

Two 'old souls'

He and the former Holly Brown have been a couple for 16 years; they were married in 2010 in Hawaii. Now 41, she knows his stories by heart and tries to edit his more impolitic utterances.
Their conspicuous 49-year age gap, they say, is no impediment. “We’re both old souls,” Holly said.
“She was raised by her grandparents,” Blaine noted.
They met in 2002 after being seated across from each other during a Bacchus event at Brennan’s. Young and pretty, she owned a dance studio, Planet Dance, in Metairie, and was going through a divorce.
Blaine was drawn to her blue eyes and creativity. “She’s a choreographer, she dances, she sings — she’s a genius,” he said. “She’s exceptional.”
After she and Blaine started dating, he lobbied her to give up her dance studio to focus on him. For two years, she refused. "That would be like me asking him to give up art," she said.The cost of all those trips came up in the legal dispute between Blaine and Barry that first flared in 2010. Just as Tom Benson's family battled over control of the Saints, the Kerns clashed over Carnival. Their power struggle was major news in New Orleans.
“Unfortunately, what was a family issue became a very public issue,” Barry Kern said. “Everybody in New Orleans feels that they own a piece of Mardi Gras. Because of that, a lot of things that happened to us, which in other families and businesses would have been private, were public.”
The leaders of Bacchus, Rex and Endymion, not wanting the production of their parades to be disrupted, brokered a temporary truce between father and son.
In 2015, the conflict was finally resolved for good. Blaine sold his 50.1 percent stake in Blaine Kern Artists to Barry, putting the son he'd groomed as his successor firmly in charge.
More than two years later, Blaine and Barry insist, all is well.
“My relationship with my father and Holly is much better than it was when all that negativity was happening," Barry Kern said. "We’ve all had time to let things go.
“I think she cares for him, and he cares for her. When a relationship like that starts, people will be circumspect. But it’s different than what I thought it initially was. From my perspective now, they have a really good relationship.”

Creative juices revived

Case in point: The couple's collaboration on "A Tree in the Sea."
Holly had wanted to author a children's book ever since a first-grade teacher at St. Catherine of Siena School praised her writing. But Blaine initially dismissed her proposed storyline — about a friendly tree in the sea that saves fish from sharks — as "ridiculous."
She was hurt, and indignant: “The king of whimsy is telling me there'd never be a tree in the sea? This is a children’s book!"
He thought the project was beneath him: “I didn't feel like illustrating a book. My company’s worldwide. This was, like, nothing."
Holly conceded that "it was not the time. He was busy traveling the world and being Mr. Mardi Gras."
He’d also fallen out of the habit of drawing. “I’d lost confidence in myself,” he said.
In 2016, they realized one of Kern’s dreams by attending Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The trip reignited his creativity. “He was like a kid in a candy store,” Holly said.
Back home in Harvey, she encouraged him to paint an undersea scene in a guest bathroom. (He eventually agreed to cover the mermaid's prominent breasts with a seashell bikini top.)
With his creative juices flowing, she resurrected her book idea. For months, they debated the content. Finally, Kern put colored pencils to paper, conjuring up an undersea world with an older Neptune and a younger, buxom mermaid.
River Road Press published “A Tree in the Sea” last fall. The couple is already planning their next book.
Not that they lack for activities. Kern still needs to stay busy. “He hates the ‘r’ word,” Holly said. "Retired."
His father “is a lot more low-key than 10 or 15 years ago, but he’s not like many other 90-year-olds,” Barry Kern said. “His age never had anything to do with the way he thinks and feels and lives. He’s not a person that was acting his age, ever. He’s been referred to as Peter Pan many times.”
Last fall, Kern reigned over the Krewe of Boo Halloween parade. Also in 2017, he and Holly traveled to Cuba, where, in 1960, he had staged a mini-parade for Fidel Castro.
He hopes to ride in a car in several Carnival parades this week, depending on the weather.
"He's going to want to mingle with the crowd," Holly said. "For him to sit in a car and not interact with people, that's torture."
The couple realizes that time is not on their side. Before he got a pacemaker in 2008, Holly resuscitated him with CPR at least three times. "Breathing life into somebody, that really strengthens your bond," she said.
These days, they spend time at home with their five small dogs and three cats. At the gym, Blaine pedals a stationary bike for 40 minutes. He draws. Holly is teaching tap dancing again. They post wacky videos of themselves on Facebook and Instagram.
“We have fun,” Holly said. “We’re creative people, and goofy people. But we’re on a social media break right now. Our time together is limited. We need to spend time face to face.”
Still looking ahead, Blaine doesn’t spend much time on reflection. But does his Mardi Gras legacy make him proud?
“It does and it doesn’t,” he said. “Let me tell you why. People walk up to me and hug me and congratulate me. Somehow, I don’t feel like I deserve it. I’m very Catholic. God’s given me this talent, but it’s embarrassing a little bit.”
This is the new Blaine Kern talking. Ten years ago, he still craved attention.
“He’s a totally different person now,” Holly said. “I like this Blaine Kern a lot better. That (court case) changed both of us. It’s made us better people, more spiritual.”
Kern used to strut into church hoping to be noticed. Now he's more likely to keep his head bowed.
“So many people know me and they’re waving at me … it’s disconcerting,” he said. “I don’t like it. I’d hate to be a movie star.”
But being Mr. Mardi Gras? That he still enjoys.


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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lost Bayou Ramblers win Grammy for best regional roots

By Keith Spera, New Orleans Advocate

The Lost Bayou Ramblers are having second thoughts about their planned hiatus. A Grammy win will do that.

Last week, members of the adventurous contemporary Cajun band announced that, after 20 years of almost non-stop touring and recording, they’d take an extended break starting in May.
But on Sunday in New York, the Ramblers’ eighth album, “Kalenda,” won the Grammy Award for best regional roots music album.
“We had decided on the hiatus even before we got the nomination,” fiddle player Louis Michot said Monday. “We were not expecting to get nominated, and especially not to win. Now we’ll have to reconsider.”
They may push back their break until the fall, to reap the benefits of the publicity windfall from the Grammy win.
“You can’t deny that,” Michot said. “You’ve got to do what comes naturally, and do what the universe is telling you.
“Which is what we’ve done since the beginning. We’ve been doing it naturally for 20 years. We’re going to keep going with what comes naturally. If the universe doesn’t want us to stop just yet, we can’t deny the universe. But there’s definitely a hiatus coming.”
Led by Michot and his accordionist brother Andre, the Lost Bayou Ramblers are a Cajun band that is rooted in tradition but progressive by nature. As evidenced by “Kalenda,” with its electronic percussion and other contemporary flourishes, they are unafraid of innovation. All the band members except the Michot brothers live in New Orleans.
They were first nominated for a Grammy 10 years ago. They fared better this year than other nominees with strong ties to south Louisiana.
Dwayne Dopsie lost out to the Ramblers in the regional roots music category. PJ Morton, the St. Augustine High School graduate who plays keyboards in Maroon 5 and crafts his own albums of contemporary R&B and soul, lost to Bruno Mars, the night’s big winner, in two R&B categories.
South Louisiana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth didn’t win for contemporary blues album. Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now,” much of which was recorded in the Uptown home studio of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, didn’t win for best alternative album.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers received their Grammy during an afternoon ceremony before the televised portion of the show began.
“You don’t want to get your mind set on winning. You’re there for the experience,” Michot said. When presenter Zac Brown “started to say ‘Kal…,’ I thought, ‘That’s not us.’ Then people start yelling, and you hop out of your seat, and there’s lots of action and noise.”
All five Ramblers took a turning speaking from the podium; Louis Michot delivered part of his speech in French.
They were then ushered to the press room to pose for photos. Afterward, legendary producer and composer Quincy Jones rolled up alongside them in a wheelchair.
“He gave us a nod. ... That was the ultimate Grammy experience for us,” Michot said.
He and his bandmates hoped to grab a celebratory drink before the start of the televised show. But they were told they didn’t have time. “We just won a Grammy, and we can’t leave and have a drink somewhere?” Michot said. 
So over the course of the telecast, the individual Ramblers slipped out to an Irish bar near Madison Square Garden, where they watched the Grammys on TV and toasted their win.
The celebration capped off a whirlwind weekend. They performed last Thursday in New Orleans and Friday in Crowley, then drove to Houston to catch a flight to New York. On Saturday at noon, they performed at B.B. King’s club in Manhattan as part of a showcase presented by the Lafayette tourism board, which also funded their trip to New York.
During his first foray to New York City, in 2002, Michot busked on the streets. The Ramblers’ earliest gigs in the Big Apple were “subway tours,” as they hauled drums, fiddles and an upright bass around town on the subway.
Now New York is the band’s strongest market outside Louisiana. They’ve progressed “from the streets to the Grammys,” Michot said. “It only took 20 years.” 
The Ramblers come home on Thursday to headline the “Save Our Sponge” concert, a benefit for the Woodlands Conservancy, a group that works to preserve south Louisiana’s coastal woodlands. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. benefit concert at the New Orleans Jazz Market, 1436 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., start at $25; go to woodlandsconservancy.org for more info.
Michot said he’ll likely display his Grammy atop an old cypress spice rack that he’s converted to a trophy case at his home in Arnaudville, a one-stoplight town along Bayou Teche northeast of Lafayette. “It’s not going to be on my living room table or anything like that,” he said.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock," he said. "It’s been a huge weekend. It’s going to take time to process.”
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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Distant Drum Beat

On the Trail of the Mardi Gras Indians
By Chris Rose, New Orleans Magazine


So many spectacles compete to overload the senses during Mardi Gras. So many sights, sounds, colors, costumes, parades, songs, rainbows, fever dreams, unicorns and pounds of flesh to behold, light the eyes, satisfy appetites and quench every thirst.

It takes effort to stand out amidst the glitter and gold, baubles and beads, spandex and spangles, flashing lights and fairy dust. It takes money, time and commitment. Serious commitment.

It takes the Mardi Gras Indians. Those singular, mythic, mysterious and inscrutable men, women and children of color who preserve and perform a sacred 19th century ritual borne of slavery, emancipation and masquerade.

It's quite a challenge to try to describe the Indians to the uninitiated. They are tight-knit, turf-conscious, prideful working class black folks dressed up in flamboyant, meticulously hand-sewn, ceremonial Native American costumes, face paint and feathers, stalking each other through New Orleans back streets in some sort of concrete jungle war game. But instead of pretending to kill their rivals, they face-off in a ritualistic preening, drumming, dancing, chanting show-down, taunting each other and arguing over who is...prettiest.

What's not to understand about that?

How the Mardi Gras Indians came to be is a subject of much academic - and barroom - debate. It's all folklore, legend, history, mythology and braggadocio.

Are they a living tribute to local Native American tribes who sheltered their fugitive forbears from the indignities of lives waged in the fields of Confederate perdition? Or are they, as popular notion goes, a spin-off of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show from the late 19th Century? Or are they just a bunch of rowdy, ostentatious, over-the-top, half-cocked revelers who take this Mardi Gras thing...Way. Too. Seriously.

Collectively, they are the proverbial golden needle in the messy Carnival haystack. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Wild Magnolias, Flaming Arrows, Uptown Hunters, Yellow Pocahontas, Burning Spears, Congo Nation, Guardians of the Flame, Creole Osceola, Fi-Y-Yi, Louisiana Star Choctaws and dozens more. From near extinction just four decades ago, Mardi Gras Indian culture has exploded in the new century, with new tribes forming every year to preserve this most elite, quixotic and exotic tradition.

On Mardi Gras morning, gangs of chiefs, spy boys, flag boys and wild men debut their new costumes, a year-long labor sewing, stitching and beading, memorialized in the song "New Suit," by legendary New Orleans composer Willie Tee:

Every year for Carnival Time, we make a new suit
Red, yellow, green, purple or blue, we make a new suit
They shine like diamonds and stars
Gotta be sure we’re together
‘Cause we the soul of Mardi Gras
.
Indeed, they are the heart, the soul and the beat of the street. I remember the first time my kids ever saw an Indian, one Fat Tuesday afternoon many years ago, when we were driving back Uptown after spending the morning basking in the colorful revelry of the Marigny and French Quarter.

He was alone, turned out in Bimini lime feathers and mint green rhinestones, staggering erratically on the Broad Street overpass, a chief who seemed to have lost his way – and his tribe! He stumbled in front of my car, I swerved wide around him and watched from my rearview mirror as my kids asked: “Daddy, what was that?

How do you tell someone?

Over the years, it became our Fat Tuesday tradition: We would not park down near the Quarter until we found an Indian gang wandering around the streets of the 6th, 7th or 8th Wards. And we always did.

The last time I saw a Mardi Gras Indian was last March, on St. Joseph’s night, when the gangs and thousands of spectators annually pack the streets of Central City for intimate neighborhood rituals far from the wide prying eyes and intrusive cell phones of visitors and tourists. This was a young man, junior member of his tribe, splayed out on the sidewalk with a gunshot wound to the thigh.

I heard the shot. I joined the crowd of previously joyous observers now looking on in wonder, fear and despair. Everyone wondered: What happened. Who is he? Why was he shot? And: Who the hell shoots an Indian?

 Another mystery of this town. It will build you up and tear you down. It’s the ecstasy and the agony. It’s the beauty and the beast. It’s laughter and forgetting.

It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. With an ever-present menacing drumbeat out there in the distance.

And so it goes.







Tuesday, September 5, 2017

63-year-old slave descendent begins college as a Georgetown University freshman

Georgetown president meets slave descendents
By Katy Reckdahl, New Orleans Advocate
A few weeks ago, at the unlikely age of 63, Melisande Short-Colomb packed her possessions into boxes at her New Orleans home on Upperline Street and sent them to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She began classes there Wednesday as a freshman.
But her story is remarkable for much more than her age.
In 1838, facing bankruptcy, the Jesuit priests who established Georgetown kept the school afloat by selling 272 slaves from their tobacco fields in Maryland to a pair of Louisiana plantation owners.
Among those slaves were Short-Colomb’s great-great-grandparents, Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen.
Thanks to student protests and the work of dogged genealogists, about 3,000 people like Short-Colomb, many in New Orleans and the surrounding region, have discovered the intimate and troubled connection between the suffering of their ancestors and the financial survival of one of the country’s premier universities.
Georgetown two years ago began an effort to confront the school’s past and atone for the sale, one of the largest slave sales in U.S. history. One step was to offer descendants like Short-Colomb so-called “legacy status,” putting them on the same footing as the children of alumni in the admissions process.
“It’s a key moment in Georgetown’s history,” said Karran Harper Royal, a longtime education advocate in New Orleans whose own family can trace its lineage to the Georgetown sale.
As leader of a group called the GU272 Descendants Association, Harper Royal estimates there are more than 800 descendants of the sale living in the New Orleans area.
When Short-Colomb applied to Georgetown earlier this year, she was a little skeptical. “You can’t trust anyone who sold your family,” she said.
Yet somehow, going back to college felt like the right move for Short-Colomb, a retired chef and widow whose four children are grown. Since Hurricane Katrina, she said, she’s found herself restless and peripatetic, leaving town for long stints in Texas, Ghana and the Virgin Islands.
Now, through her work-study job in the campus library, which includes the newly created Georgetown Slavery Archive, Short-Colomb will help connect families torn apart during slavery.
She made her own connections in April, when she met a group of newfound relatives in Maryland. From them, she heard that an enslaved cousin named Louisa, tipped off by a priest, had avoided the trip by hiding in the woods for three or four days. “All she knew was that they were taken to somewhere known as Algiers,” Short-Colomb said.
Short-Colomb’s education has long been caught up in the question of race.
“My mother was holding me in her arms when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board decision,” said Short-Colomb, referencing the landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the court found that segregated schools for black and white children were unconstitutional.
Enforcement of that decision did not come quickly in New Orleans. When she attended McDonogh No. 6 Elementary School on Chestnut Street, it was still an all-black school. And she still worshiped at the all-black Church of the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally, in the sixth grade, her parents enrolled her at Sophie B. Wright Junior High, where nearly all of her teachers and many of her classmates were white. Bomb threats were common for the first few months of school, she said.
Suddenly, her world was no longer confined to the protective, tightly knit black community she’d known. “It was the first time I had teachers who didn’t know my name,” she said.
One thing that hadn’t changed was the pride that came with her name and her family’s deep roots in New Orleans.
Two public schools and the chapel at Dillard University bore the name of her mother’s uncle, the Rev. Alfred Lawless, a trailblazer for the education of black students in the city. Another public school was named for the Rev. Henderson Dunn, an educator who wrote about religion and schools for The Times-Picayune and was related to her by marriage.
Short-Colomb also knew she was descended from Abraham Mahoney and Mary Ellen Queen, of Lafourche Parish, because her grandmother, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, was emphatic about making her recite the family oral history. “I called that ‘the begats,’ ” she said, referring to the term used in biblical genealogies.
She had been told that her Queen-family ancestors had sued their owners for their freedom in court, because their great-grandmother was an indentured servant who should have been let go once her period of indenture was over. As borne out by court records, their lawyer was none other than Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner."
She learned that her grandparents, lured by the possibility of farmland, had traveled by ship to New Orleans before the Civil War, then traveled to Terrebonne Parish on a river flatboat — “followed by alligators.”
“I knew all of my history,” Short-Colomb said.
So when genealogist Judy Riffel texted last year, asking if she was related to a Mahoney family from Baton Rouge, Short-Colomb responded with a long message.
“I sent her my whole pedigree,” said Short-Colomb, who then discovered something she didn’t know — that her branch of the Queen family had been unable to win their freedom and had been part of the 1838 sale. They had traveled to Terrebonne by flatboat, she said, but as someone else’s property.
“I knew everything about my family from 1838 to 2017. But I didn’t know enough about 1704 to 1838,” she said.
In the coming four years, she said, she hopes to discover more about those missing years, perhaps from some of the 200 boxes of records that remain to be digitized for the Slavery Archive. Over the next few years, all the documents in those boxes will be scanned and indexed by the names of those who were shipped to Louisiana as human cargo in 1838.
Along with the increasing use of DNA to find enslaved ancestors, this type of research promises to create another shift in the country’s racial landscape, by providing a deeper awareness of how slavery kept wealthy owners afloat while severing enslaved families.
“She is there (at Georgetown) to find out more about all of our families,” Harper Royal said. “Her journey is for all of us.”
ast week, before Georgetown’s convocation for new students, Short-Colomb choked back tears as academic marshal John Q. Pierce briefly stopped the faculty procession at her aisle and doffed his academic cap in her direction, a gesture “intended as a sign of respect for her and a recognition of the special status of all the descendants of the 272,” he later explained.
During the same convocation, Short-Colomb was invited to receive the Georgetown College banner, which she carried high, with her ancestors and her GU272 friends in mind, she said. 
Then, on Wednesday, as she walked to class amid a sea of 18-year-olds, Short-Colomb thought back to her childhood, when her grandmother, with much relish, would sit her down in the family house on Zimpel Street and make her recite “the begats.”
It was that woman, Geneva Ruby Taylor Lawless, who put her granddaughter on the path that ended up at Georgetown, Short-Colomb said. “She is the reason I have a story.”