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New Orleans' Return To Cultural Parades Is A Step Toward Healing

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom
Mardi Gras Indians gather outside Treme Recreation Community Center, play music, and chant as they wait for the funeral services of Keelian Boyd, or “Big Chief Dump”, to end, April 10, 2021.

New Orleans was a hotspot for COVID-19 cases and deaths at the start of the pandemic and many of the attractions that bring people in from across the region – from Jazz Fest to the bustling bar scene on Bourbon Street – were halted. But an event last month offered a glimmer of a hope for a return to normalcy.

New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians held a second line funeral, a parade for family, friends and strangers to honor local icon Keelian Boyd, otherwise known as Big Chief Dump, of the Young Maasai Hunters tribe. He died from heart failure March 28, 2021.

It was one of the first major Mardi Gras Indian burials and parades since the city shut down.

New Orleans is now in modified phase 3, where social distancing and masks are still required, but gatherings of 500 people and live music are permitted. City officials say second line parades are only allowed with permits.

"Second line parading is an integral part of our cultural tradition and organically engages gatherings of people,” Lisa Alexis, director of the Office of Cultural Economy, said in an email. "The safety of our community is at the forefront. Second lines will be allowed when it is safe to do so.”

Though the city isn’t completely open yet, participants said this parade was a step toward healing and a reunion with the cultural aspects of the city they have missed.

second line
Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom
A member of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet poses as she marches in the second line, April 10, 2021.

Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste, of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe: “Dump meant a lot to me, ‘cause he knew what it was to be a big chief. I think he's happy and excited because he's gone the way that he lived. When you do a funeral the way you live, that's a great feeling. It's just something that's spiritual. During this pandemic, this is like one of the first big culture events, so it's like bringing a family together.”

Second line burial
Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom
A hearse and sign saying “Big Chief Dump” head for the center of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans as second line attendees get ready to march toward Congo Square, April 10, 2021.

Big Chief Howard Miller, of the Creole Wild West tribe: “It’s one of the few times that we have come together this year. We have a small moment to come together for a cause: To send one of our brothers away. Otherwise we wouldn’t be together.”

Second Line Burial- Casket
Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom
Casket bearers march after the funeral of Keelian Boyd, or Big Chief Dump, toward Congo Square. The parade can only extend a few blocks to avoid spreading COVID-19, April 10, 2021.

Miller: “It has been a great strain on us in many ways. Myself, I have lost relatives from the virus. And, I've known around 20 people who have died. We have to try to stay safe as much as possible. This coronavirus is tearing a lot of us apart. Hopefully everybody will try to get their vaccine, so we can come back together sooner than later.”

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom
Belden “Noonie Man” Batiste was one of the hundreds of people to attend the funeral, April 10, 2021.

Batiste: “We usually can parade all around, but you gotta do a certain thing with pandemic rules. So they are just gonna go around and then they are gonna stop ... and pour libations with African drummers. It’s great for the community to come together as long as they are practicing safe masks and using hand sanitizer. Some of them told me they took the vaccine and are doing great.”

Second Line Funeral
Credit: Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom.
Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Big Chief of the Skull and Bone Gang and other members gather outside of Treme Community Recreation Center to chant and play the drums for the second line, April 10, 2021.

Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, the big chief of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang: “These moments are things you can never take back and you don't get a second go. It's a mournful moment for all of us to see one of our brothers that has passed away. But the main thing that we're out here to do is to recognize him, give his spirit safe passage to the other side and the ancestral realm and hope and pray that, you know, the same can happen for us.”

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom
Edwina Waterhouse, queen from the 9th Ward Black Hatchet tribe, dances in the second line parade for the burial of Keelian Boyd, April 10, 2021.

Edwina Waterhouse, queen with the 9th Ward Black Hatchet tribe: "Dump was a big chief and a spirit of the culture. Because he’s been in the culture for so long, he helped everybody, so you have to come show your tradition for the funeral. I feel like it's sad and happy at the same time.”

second line burial
Shalina Chatlani/ Gulf States Newsroom
A young girl in Mardi Gras attire leans on rails outside the funeral service at Treme Community Recreation Center. April 10, 2021.

Batiste: “First they had the sorrow and the funeral, but when they hit the streets it was like a sense of joy. They were crying joy because they were gone out of the world and they were being healed. That’s what we do in New Orleans and nowhere else around the world you can get it. Nowhere.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, WWNO in New Orleans and NPR.

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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