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.