COVID-19 claimed another cultural figure this past week when Ronald Lewis of New Orleans died. Lewis was respected locally in the city as a member of the legendary Mardi Gras Indians and for his efforts to preserve and pass on the traditions and history of its culture. The Mardi Gras Indians are by far one of the most colorful ‘krewes’ of Mardi Gras, not only in its costumes but in its heritage.
Their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native American tribes living in the area helped to shield and protect runaway slaves. The Mardi Gras Indians honor the friendship and bonds that were formed during that time in modern day Mardi Gras parades. Today, there are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that includes the Wild Magnolias, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Choctaw Hunters of which Lewis was once Council Chief.
I’ve never had the chance to see the Indians parade, as their parades usually occur after my annual visit to New Orleans during the Carnival season. But a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch members of one of the tribes perform one afternoon at the little outdoor stage in a section of he French Quarter down by the Mississippi River in what is known as Dutch Alley. The area is filled with tourists who wander in the Artist Co-op, stroll through the Mask Market (see blog post Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market, Feb. 2016. ) held here the weekend before the big Mardi Gras parades or visit the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Visitor Center where you hear a jazz session, read about the history of the genre and pick up a recording or two of some of the local musicians. The Visitor Center is a stop that I recommend everyone make when they are in the city.
The tribal members performing the day I saw them wore their beautiful feathered and beaded costumes. I had seen many lustrous prints made by photographer Christopher Porche West of Indian members in their costumes displayed on the walls of the Snug Harbor jazz club. But never had I seen one in person until this one day.
Each tribal member creates and sews their own costume or ‘suit’ as they are known. The beading is intricate and detailed and takes hundreds of painstaking hours to finish. The colors are vibrant and shine in the New Orleans sunlight. The feathers are carefully placed one by one and when worn sweep with the wearer’s motions. On the costumes are ‘design patches’ that are first sketched on a canvas before decorated with beads and sequins. Each patch tells a story and matches the overall design and color of the costume. These costumes truly are artistic creations and can cost thousands of dollars in materials. Sadly, the suits are worn for only one season, then are broken down and reassembled into a new costume for the next year.
Lewis recognized the importance and value of this tradition and the mastery of the skills needed to create each of these suits. He created in his backyard The House of Dance and Feathers to preserve and educate others about the culture surrounding these unique organizations. His collection of masks, suits, figures, and other related artifacts have been on display there since 2003. It has been open to the public by appointment but, as the website notes: “We’re pretty flexible and we’d love to see you down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just give us a call and we’ll make an arrangement for you to come and visit.”
Whether or not Lewis’ family will continue to maintain The House of Dance and Feathers is not certain. If they do, I plan to pay a visit next time I’m in town. I only wish that I had known about it while Lewis was still living and would be there to share the stories he told. One thing that is certain is Lewis’ contribution and efforts to bring attention to the extraordinary culture of the Mardi Gras Indians will not be forgotten just as the African American descendants of those runaway slaves have not forgotten the role Native Americans played in sheltering their ancestors two hundred years ago.