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Sewing is a skill that many Mardi Gras Indians cultivate from a young age. A vital part of the culture, those who “mask Indian” sew their own suits for the coming year—typically a significant expense of both time and money. The results, though, are breathtaking and exotic. As Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday, their craftsmanship is on full display for members of their tribe, other tribes, and the wider public to admire.
Shawmika Edwards Boyd is the Big Queen for the Young Maasai Hunters tribe which she and her husband, Big Chief Keelian Boyd, founded in 2017. While Boyd grew up in the 7th Ward Mardi Gras Indian tradition with a familial lineage, Edwards Boyd, who grew up in the Lafitte Housing Projects, tried to stay as far away as possible. In the old days, Mardi Gras Indian culture conjured a certain fear due to the violence that frequently occurred when warring tribes encountered one another in the streets. “Now,” explains Shawmika Edwards Boyd, “it’s not about who’s the strongest or toughest gang, or who has shed blood. Now it’s about who’s the prettiest, who gives back to the community.” As someone who grew up as an outsider to Mardi Gras Indian traditions, as Big Queen she is now instrumental in the day to day business of the Young Maasai Hunters.
Boyd’s uncles, who include Tyrone Stevenson, masked with perhaps the most well-known and respected Mardi Gras Indian, the late Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, before forming their own tribe, Monogram Hunters. Boyd masked with them before spending a decade designing and sewing suits for other Mardi Gras Indians.
In 2017, with Stevenson’s blessing, Boyd and Edwards Boyd formed the Young Maasai Hunters. Edwards Boyd masked for the first time for Mardi Gras 2018, the tribe’s first Mardi Gras. After she masked, she understood the tradition went far beyond just putting on a suit. “It’s a high I can’t even explain…being in costume.” After experiencing that, she asked herself, “How can I contribute in another way to the culture? What can I do to give back? Teach people about the culture? Draw more women into the culture?”
As she explains, the new generation of Mardi Gras Indians focuses on unity and strives to be a positive role model for youth. As Big Queen, one of her many roles is to ensure that young people in the tribe are keeping their grades up. Young Maasai Hunters tribe members also give lectures about Mardi Gras Indian culture in schools around the city.
Another way that the Young Maasai Hunters share their culture is through NOGMI Sip and Sew, Edwards Boyd’s brainchild. Started in July of 2018, NOGMI Sip and Sew is a similar concept to the “Sip and Paint” style classes that have emerged in recent years, but with a twist. Sip and Sew takes the Mardi Gras Indian sewing tradition and makes it more accessible to those outside the community. During classes, which are about two hours long, masking Indians teach attendees basic sewing techniques like how to thread a needle and how to sew beads and sequins on canvas. Attendees choose a stencil as the basis for their design, as well as sequins and beads, and begin work on their four by four canvas. Young Maasai Hunters suits are also on display during the class to provide inspiration and education, and classes include a live performance by the Young Maasai Hunters.
“Being on the outside looking in, I never really understood the culture completely,” says Edwards Boyd of the time before she started masking with the Young Maasai Hunters. Through the tribe’s educational programs and NOGMI Sip and Sew, however, even those on the outside have an opportunity to better understand the Mardi Gras Indians of today, freeing them from perceptions of violence based on the past and admiring them for the creative and strong communities they are.