American Routes Shortcuts: Mohawk Hunters
The Black Masking Indians of New Orleans Carnival—some say Mardi Gras Indians—are neighborhood groups with roots in the late 19th century that include a Chief, a Queen, and roles like Flag Boy, Spy Boy, and Wildman. The Indians are on foot dressed in large, complex, beaded suits depicting Black and Native American histories as warriors with a crown of feathers. They sing, backed by a handmade rhythm section. I walked with Big Chief Tyrone Casby, an educator in everyday life, among his tribe, the Mohawk Hunters, their families and friends in Algiers, on the West Bank of New Orleans.
Tyrone Casby: Big Chief Tyrone Casby, Mohawk Hunters, in Downtown Algiers. We're about to parade through the streets of Algiers on Mardi Gras Day as we've done since the 1930s, the late ‘30s. My great Uncle Frank Casby started it, and here we are today in 2022, coming back and doing the same thing. I got all my grandkids; I got about eight of them. I've got great nieces, great nephews. I've got family, friends, and community people. Everybody in the community wants to make sure that this tradition stays and keeps going.
Nick Spitzer: So where are we heading?
Asia: Well, right now, walking through the projects where Big Chief is from, then we're going to circle back up to the NOMTAC House where Chief is the Grand Marshal.
NS: NOMTAC is “New Orleans Most Talked About Club”?
A: Yes, it's the NOMTAC parade, which rode last Saturday. And then we're going to go up to my great grandma's house because you know everything is all about family. Then we're going to parade, I think to–I don't know the name of it, but we're going to keep going, and we're going to stop for the day.
NS: What's your name?
A: My name’s Asia. I'm the Chief’s granddaughter.
NS: What does the Carnival Day feel like to you and being an Indian?
A: Every year it's just–it's one of the best experiences you can have to be out here with your family, doing what you love, representing your culture for so many years, and it's just–it's fun, and I don't think I'm ever going to stop. Yeah.
Jerry Butler: Jerry Butler, third Chief of the Mohawk Hunters.
NS: How long you been working on the suit?
JB: Ah, whole year.
JB: Whole year. You got to be really focused. Have to get the beading–you got to realize, this here was just a piece of plain canvas when I got it. Had my vision of what I wanted, so I went to sewing, you know. You see with Mardi Gras Indians, you have to sacrifice. Sacrifice is what you call this here. Getting ready for the Mardi Gras Day. I represent my tribe anywhere I go.
NS: Where does the Baby Doll fit in the group?
Yolanda Brown: Where does the Baby Doll? Okay, this is a new thing. We all know the Baby Dolls originated first in 1912, and there were many groups formed in between the Sixth and the Seventh Ward, you know, and it started out as groups. You had to be initiated into the group; you couldn’t just dress up and show out. I'm the first Baby Doll for an Indian tribe, which is–my name is Yolanda Brown, and I'm called the Mohawk Hunters Baby Doll Bella. So, it's different as opposed to all the other Baby Doll groups. All the ladies are nice, it’s all a big sisterhood, but I'm the first Baby Doll for an Indian tribe.
NS: It's a big job.
YB: It is, and I love it. I wouldn’t have it no other way.
La’ Jeanne Zehner: My name is La’ Jeanne, last name is Zehner. I am Spy Queen, and I've been masking with the Mohawk Hunters today.
NS: What's the job of the Spy Queen?
LZ: Oh, I watch out for my Spy Boy. My Spy Boy is the one who's out front. He checks out everything, makes sure it's okay to go ahead. He gives us signals to make sure, you know, tell us which way to go, if danger is coming. So I am his backup.
NS: I'm looking at your suit, and tell me what's here? Do you sew this?
LZ: I do. Every year I try to do something different. So this year I just was kind of, you know, I have the skull, the wolf, and the spears, you know, the feathers, and all of that, so…
NS: You're the only woman out there in an Indian suit.
LZ: I am. I'm the only adult woman, and I noticed that. Even as a child I was drawn to the Indians. I would see them mask every year, and I just wanted to know more about it, what it was about.
NS: Why do we mask as Indians?
LZ: We mask as Indians as a representation and an honor of the Indians in the past who used to protect the slaves that came through Louisiana, because back in the day when slaves would come through, Indians would hide the slaves in their quarters and in their feathers to keep them safe from being taken back to the plantation. So, we do it in honor of them.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.