For decades, Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of FiYiYi sewed his Mardi Gras Indian suits with the help of a roomful of people -- his "committee," he called them. But nearly 50 years after he began, deaths, sickness and arthritis have thinned the committee's daily ranks to just two: the chief and Jack Robinson, 50, who has sewed with Harris for 25 years.
For the past several months, the two have sat side by side in the chief's 9th Ward garage. For 12 hours a day, they tack down feathers, stitch beaded patches and sew sequins onto the chief's elaborate, many-layered suit and six smaller children's suits, each with matching boots and crowns.
When one gets stuck on a piece, the other takes it over.
Without Robinson, the chief would consider retiring, he said. "Mr. Robinson is a true, honest committee man -- my everything, my right hand, the ace, the one," said Harris, 61, who has created a new suit annually for 48 years.
Robinson has helped create half of those suits. On Mardi Gras morning, he helps members of the FiYiYi dress and then picks up an African bass drum and joins the tribe's group of drummers.
Robinson has never worn a feather. But he's one of a multitude of unseen people who endure painful needle pricks and long hours to put the city's Indians on the streets by Mardi Gras morning.
"No Indian sews alone. If they tell you that, it's a lie," said Corey Rayford, second chief of the 7th Ward's Black Feather tribe.
Some who sew are, like Robinson, devoted to one Indian tribe or chief and work for free. A smaller group of men freelance as designers, sculptors and sketch artists, juggling four and five suits at a time for modest payments. Over the years, they've taught their art to hundreds of younger Indians.
But the backbone of the Indian tradition is family members, who often pool money and talents to create new suits annually.
The best-known needle belongs to Joyce Montana, the widow of Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Tootie Montana, who transformed the city's Indian tradition with his weighty crowns and elaborate three-dimensional patches.
By the time Montana died in 2005, he had emerged in a new suit for 52 of his 82 years. He usually declared himself the "prettiest" Indian in the city.
But the chief shared credit, his wife said. "He'd say, 'If it weren't for Joyce, I wouldn't be able to come out like I come out.' " Without her help, her husband's suits would have had beautiful designs but not the same kind of detail, she said.
His suits' intricacies were the result of daily labor. "I was a beautician, and he was a metal lather," Joyce Montana said. "But every night after work, we'd have supper and then the children would string the beads and he and I would sit down and sew."
As Carnival approached, they'd turn down all invitations, she said. "You make sacrifices if you want to be the prettiest."
All in the family
Other help came from loyal needle-wielders like Jerome Smith, who began sewing for the chief when he was a young boy. "Tootie would come home from work and find Jerome inside the house working on his suit," Joyce Montana said.
These days, she sews for her son, Darryl Montana, who became the tribe's big chief about 15 years ago. "I'm 81, and I'm still going strong with the sewing," she said. "I sew for Darryl like I used to sew for Tootie."
Darryl Montana incorporates between 400 and 600 separate beaded pieces into each year's suit, he said. A finished suit can weigh more than 100 pounds.
Like many big chiefs, he draws the design of each piece of each suit and then distributes them to different people for sewing. This year, Montana's team includes his wife, friends, sisters and sisters-in-law.
But the chief's power duo is headquartered at the family's double shotgun in the 7th Ward: His mother lives on one side and his brother on the other. They sew together, and this year have completed more than 400 pieces.
The pieces come back to the chief for pearling and detail work, which he always does himself.
Three years ago, Montana's suit honored his mother. On his chief's stick, he beaded a portrayal of her hands sewn onto the surface of a tambourine. "Those hands kept the whole tradition going, " he said. "Because everyone was trying to beat my dad. But my mom was the engine that kept it going."
Guardians of the Flame Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, who lives in the 9th Ward, has strict guidelines for her helpers. Only "people who share DNA with me" can stitch her beadwork, she said.
One of her mainstays is her mother, Herreast Harrison, 74, who sews for her children and grandchildren. "She does it with her whole heart, and you feel that," Harrison-Nelson said. "When I put it on, it's like snuggling under a warm blanket."
Architects and designers
When Indians talk about people known for crafting suits, they usually mention only two or three names.
For downtown Indians, especially those who sew three-dimensional designs, the name "Red" always comes up. So does the name Nelson, who has long worked on flat, one-dimensional suits in the 9th Ward.
Ernest "Red" Hingle, 62, who has freelanced on Indian suits for 46 years, said, "There's just a handful of guys like me."
Hingle first sewed for his younger brothers, who masked with the Yellow Pocahontas. Then he stitched for cousins and nephews. One year, he helped to make 17 suits.
He and his family took up the whole backyard, spreading out the work across picnic tables. But they soon noticed that people passing the yard would try to get a forbidden peek at the suits before Mardi Gras. So they went undercover, literally, by covering the whole yard with plastic and sewing underneath it.
Hingle still sews for family. But he's also become a go-to man for dozens of other Indians.
Melvin Reed has also worked on hundreds of suits and is known as "one of the great architects and designers in the culture," said Jerome Smith, who founded the Tambourine and Fan youth organization to teach cultural traditions to children.
Uptown, there are other names: Weasel, Abdul Shahid, Ramone. But Uptown Indians are less likely to sew with help, said "Honey" Bannister, who's been the gang flag for the Creole Wild West for 40 years. That's partly because most Uptown Indians sew flat, representational patches and assemble suits that rarely include three-dimensional construction.
From what he's seen, a typical Uptown Indian relies upon help from only one or two people, maybe a daughter or a cousin, Bannister said.
"It would hurt me to have somebody come up to me in front of all my friends and family and say, 'You see that patch? I sewed that for him,' " Bannister said.
'For the love of it'
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles also does it alone. "Nobody helps me," he said. He had a bad experience years ago, when he gave a friend a patch to sew. "I came by his house the night before Mardi Gras and he hadn't started on it," Boudreaux said, recalling how he'd cried at the time.
At his height, Boudreaux incorporated 32 beaded patches into his suits. He has fewer patches now; he prefers more streamlined old-school suits, which allow him to dance and "play Indian" as he leads his gang through Uptown streets.
"Some of the younger guys now make suits so big they can't even wear it, " Boudreaux said. "It's like buying a car and not being able to drive it.
And while Indians have different preferences when it comes to sewing technique and suit design, some approaches are generally scorned. Such slipshod practices include cannibalizing patches from old suits, "renting" pieces worn in the past by other Indians or paying someone else to sew an entire suit.
"The difference is the feeling you have once you put on that suit," Bannister said. "I stayed up all last night -- no Red Bull or nothing -- just for the love of it. That feeling won't be in no lazy-ass Indian's rent-a-suit."
Hingle notes that true craftsmen have boundaries. "I don't sew for anybody," he said. But for Indians who can't draw, Hingle will sketch designs onto cardboard. He will also assist in picking colors -- a specialty of his -- or assembling the three-dimensional suits and crowns.
"We sew on cardboard and shape it into three-dimensional shapes with cuts, folds and wire. And some Indians might not be as articulate with that as I am," Hingle said. "So if they get to a little stumbling block, they call or bring it to me."
Hingle gets paid for his work, but not nearly enough to give up his day job as a construction contractor. "Indians are working-class people, so I can't really get paid for the full value of my work, " he said. "They don't make that kind of money."
Jerome Smith was only 14 at the time, but he recalls vividly when Big Chief Tootie Montana handed him a difficult part of his suit.
The piece was about the size of his palm, Smith said. He struggled until he got it shaped the right way, at which point the chief declared, "That's it!" and put it into his crown.
"That was my greatest moment as a youngster," Smith said.
Smith's cousin, Victor Harris, was Montana's flagboy at the time. But Smith said he never extended a hand in that direction because Harris "always had a lot of help in-house."
"The good Lord gave us many hands," Harris said as he recalled his once-large committee, which always topped a dozen.
Last year, it was down to three needles: the chief, Robinson and Collins "Coach" Lewis, whom Harris called the commissioner of his sewing committee. The two sewed together for 45 years before Lewis died of an aneurysm in August.
"Some days, as I'm sewing, I still expect Coach to arrive," said Harris, who created this year's suit in honor of Lewis, known as a curmudgeon and natural bossman who was also nicknamed "Bumpy Blue."
During the past week, Harris' garage, once quiet, began to bustle with people there for the camaraderie more than the sewing. "Before you know it, it's a congregation," Harris said. "We get the comedians, the wineheads, the guys who bring a box of chicken or a half-gallon of liquor."
And as each person spends time in the garage, they too become part of the Bumpy Blue suit, Harris said. "They put the love in my suit," he said. "When you see me, you see them."
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3396.
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