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Big Chief Looks Toward Mardi Gras 2022: 'It's Gonna Feel Like The Year After Katrina'

Phoebe Jones
Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. sits outside his home in New Orleans East with his kids (from left to right): Alvin Smith, 18, Acerria Dollis, 7, Lorey Dollis, 3, and Elbert Chin, 13.

Among the many groups sitting this Carnival season out are the city’s Mardi Gras Indians.

They’d typically take to the streets wearing brand new costumes, showcasing a year's worth of labor. Now, those suits sit unfinished in living rooms and on kitchen tables.

Reporter Aubri Juhasz spoke with Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias from his home in New Orleans East.

For Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. of the Wild Magnolias, masking has taken on a new meaning.

“Mask-up is putting a mask across your face, but on a normal year mask-up for us would mean put on the Indian suit,” Dollis said.

This year, Dollis is doing both. Come Mardi Gras he’ll perform outdoors for a small group of locals before heading home to barbecue with his kids.

When Dollis spoke with New Orleans Public Radio the week before Lundi Gras he was restless. He’d normally spend this time of the year sewing late into the night alongside his fellow Indians.

“I would probably have rings around my eyes, yawning, tired because I wouldn’t be getting no sleep,” Dollis said. “As far as for this year, it’s kind of slower and it feels funny because I’ve never been like this before.”

Dollis began sewing when he was 9 years old. He’s in his 40s now and is teaching his own kids the craft.

In his living room, there’s a card table where he’s already working on next year’s suit. The design consists of thousands of tiny beads.

Credit Phoebe Jones / WWNO
The main panel of Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr.'s new suit depicts an Indian sacrifice. There are skulls with flaming eyes and a realistic heart.

The main panel depicts an Indian sacrifice. There are skulls with flaming eyes and a realistic heart. His design is far from complete.

Like the city’s other krewes, the Wild Magnolias are taking this year off. Dollis said it was a hard decision, but the right one given how easily the coronavirus spread last Mardi Gras.

“Even one of my Indians had it, and he had it so bad that it was to the point where we thought they’d have to pull the plug on him. Then all of a sudden he did a whole turn around and shook back.”

Dollis said he knows people who have died from COVID-19 and he still worries about getting sick.

As a performer, most of his gigs have been canceled. While he’s holding on financially, he said other Indians are suffering.

Several of his krewe members are unemployed as a result of the pandemic and he believes many Indians won’t have the financial resources to sew next year’s costumes.

Credit Phoebe Jones / WWNO
A completed costume set up in the living room of Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr.'s home in New Orleans East.

The supplies needed for a single suit can cost thousands of dollars and the Wild Magnolias are currently fundraising.

“I hope they do come back as full force because they have a lot of time to sew and sit down and collect ideas,” Dollis said. “But I know it’s not going to be as full as it was the previous years.”

He’s been thinking about Hurricane Katrina and the feeling he had when he reunited with his Indians and other Indian Krewes on the Mardi Gras after the storm.

That year he finished sewing his suit in Gainesville, Florida, and made it back to New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras.

There were so many people gathered on Super Sunday — the Sunday before Fat Tuesday — that Dollis said he couldn’t see the street.

“I think I saw more Indians cry because they thought the other person was dead or they saw their house [underwater] and they couldn't get in contact with them,” Dollis said. “The year after Katrina was a big, joyous occasion.”

Dollis expects next year to feel the same.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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