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