NEW ORLEANS — Since he was a teenager, Monk Boudreaux has been donning a Technicolor suit of beads and feathers and taking to the streets as a Mardi Gras Indian, shaking a tambourine and singing songs that have made him famous well beyond the streets of his Uptown neighborhood.
Boudreaux, 80, is big chief of the Golden Eagles, one of an estimated three dozen “tribes” of Black men and women across New Orleans who emerge every spring to show off their elaborate creations in a series of parades. It’s a tradition that dates back more than a century to when segregation barred Black residents from participating in the city’s parades.
“Nothing has stopped us, not even Katrina,” said Boudreaux, an elder of the tribes who is credited as one of the first Mardi Gras Indians to record music. His decade-spanning career has taken him around the world and earned him a Grammy nomination this year.
Members of the groups — also known as Black-masking Indians — design and sew their own elaborately beaded suits, which alternately pay homage to Native Americans who helped protect runaway slaves and celebrate African culture. The suits include patch-like elements sewn with thousands of tiny beads depicting historical figures and scenes, as well as intricate headdresses sewn with colorful plumes of feathers.
Even with round-the-clock sewing, many suits take upward of a year to create, a costly labor of devotion that has kept going despite all the challenges faced by New Orleans’ citizens.
Listen to the Mardi Gras Indians perform
But in 2020, the world came to a halt. Just weeks after Boudreaux and the other tribes debuted their latest suits at the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans became an early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic that would disproportionately sicken working-class Black residents across the city — including members of the tribes and their families. The city canceled the 2021 celebrations amid fears of a new surge in illness.
Forced inside, Boudreaux said he and the maskers did the only thing they could do. “Sew, sew, sew,” Boudreaux said, nodding to the lyrics of a longtime chant that has been a mainstay of Mardi Gras Indian culture.
LEFT: Jeremy Lacen, big chief Black of the Black Flame Hunters, parades on April 29 in New Orleans. RIGHT: A bead design on a Black Flame Hunters Mardi Gras Indians suit on April 29.
In recent weeks, the tribes have returned to the streets, debuting their latest suits on Mardi Gras and parading through this month’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where Boudreaux has been a featured performer every year since the event began in 1970.
It’s a rebirth that coincides with the reawakening of New Orleans after two years of loss and struggle, not only from the pandemic but also from Hurricane Ida last summer, as elders such as Boudreaux try to keep the tradition going among younger generations against the backdrop of an increasingly gentrified city.
“I was always told, ‘You’ve got to keep it going. You keep the tradition going, because if you let it go, it’s going to be gone forever,’ ” Boudreaux said. “So that’s what I’m doing.”
“When I do this, I think of the struggle of those before me.”
Victor Harris, the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and big chief of the Mandingo Warriors, poses in his tribal suit on April 27 in New Orleans. Harris shows off his Fi Yi Yi sliver cuff. Shells and beads adorn the tribal suit worn by Victor Harris on April 27. Harris pulls on the arm piece to his tribal suit.
The Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and big chief of the Mandingo Warriors has masked for 57 years, longer than any other Mardi Gras Indian. His suits are African-themed, covered in cowrie shells and beads, with an elaborate warrior-style mask that covers his face. “It’s not easy being a chief, just like it’s not easy being a mother or father. … It’s a responsibility because people look up to you. They respect you. They look for you to lead them the right way,” said Harris 72, who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward and lost his home and many of his older suits to Katrina. “I try to teach about the culture, how this is something our ancestors did. … When I do this, I think of the struggle of those before me. … It’s been a struggle for us all our lives. There’s still a struggle. … But this has also been my survival.”
“When you wear it, you are top of the world.”
Demond Melancon, big chief of the Young Seminole Hunters, poses in his “Jah Defender” suit on April 26 in New Orleans. Melancon shows off the beaded shoes of his “Jah Defender” suit. Melancon’s beaded patches tell a story. Demond Melancon receives help from his wife, Alicia Melancon, to don his “Jah Defender” suit.
The big chief of the Young Seminole Hunters has masked since he was 13, designing massive suits that have gained growing attention from the fine art world for his visual portrayal of Black history including the stories of escaped slaves through intricate beading. When Mardi Gras was canceled in 2021, Melancon placed his nine-foot suit, “Jah Defender,” on display inside a glass case atop the empty pedestal of a removed Confederate monument in a New Orleans park. “It felt supernatural, like when you wear the suit but a little more than that,” said Melancon, 43. “When we sew these suits all year … when you wear it, you are top of the world. I’m like the president of the United States, yes, indeed. That’s how I feel when I put this on. Because I try to conjure up certain spirits in these suits. When I’m sewing, I’m think about everybody … people before me.”
“This is my way of protesting.”
Tiara Horton, queen of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet tribe, poses in her Black Lives Matter suit on April 25 in New Orleans. Horton’s 2020 Black Lives Matter suit was created before George Floyd was killed. Horton’s 2020 Black Lives Matter suit.
The queen of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet first saw the Mardi Gras Indians when she was 7 and dreamt of parading but couldn’t afford to create her own suit. In 2017, the second-grade teacher finally began masking as a queen, with modern suits that depicted characters and scenes from the racial justice movement. Her 2020 Black Lives Matter suit, created before the killing of George Floyd, featured beaded portraits of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland alongside historic figures like the Obamas. “This is my way of protesting,” said Horton, 31. “When I get out in the streets, I am going to make you see me.”
“It’s all about keeping tradition.”
Terrance Williams Jr., big chief of the Black Hawk Hunters, puts on the beaded headdress of his tribal suit on April 26 in New Orleans. Terrance Williams Jr. receives assistance from his brother Tyrell as he puts on his tribal suit. Terrance Williams Jr’s. mother, Tinice, is depicted on his Black Hawk Hunters tribal suit on April 26. Williams poses for a portrait on April 26.
Terrance Williams Jr.
The big chief of Black Hawk Hunters is the youngest chief in the city. Masking since he was 8 years old, the 18-year-old high school senior from New Orleans East and his two younger brothers are among the newer generation of Mardi Gras Indians trying to keep the tradition alive as way of giving young people purpose and keeping them out of trouble. This year, Williams dedicated his suit to his mother, Tinice, who first exposed her sons to the Mardi Gras Indians culture. “Everything is because of her,” he said.
About this story
Edited by Amanda Erickson. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design and development by Beth Broadwater.