Sewing beaded and feathered suits is not the only role for women in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Many have the privilege of masking as queens, helping to guide and lead their tribes during the year and while masking out on the street. Mardi Gras Indian queens range in age from babies to over eighty years old and go by a number of names, including big queen, Maroon queen, and tribal queen. Many of them are born into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, with family members who have been “masking Indian,” as was originally said, for generations.
Mardi Gras Indian History
Mardi Gras Indian traditions, according to the most commonly-held belief, emerged as a way to pay homage to the Native Americans who sheltered runaway enslaved persons on their journeys to freedom. As a result of interactions between the two groups, traditions (and blood) commingled. Many Mardi Gras Indians even claim Native American ancestry.
However, according to Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson (Queen Reesie) of the Guardians of the Flame, the origins of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is more complex and goes far beyond that. “It is a tradition of resistance. It is an homage to the mutual struggles of both African Americans and Native Americans on their quest for freedom, self-actualization, and self-expression in America.”
After the period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, established to segregate and relegate African Americans to inferior positions of society, prevented them from participating in mainstream Mardi Gras traditions. During that time, Mardi Gras Indian traditions incubated within African American neighborhoods throughout the city, developing territorial natures. While for many years, confrontations between different tribes could turn violent, this culture changed, largely due to the efforts of the late Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. Now, when tribes, or gangs, meet, they perform dances, chants, and other rituals, working to outdo each other.
Women in Mardi Gras Indian Culture
Today, there are approximately ninety Mardi Gras Indian tribes. The culture of the tribe is male-dominated and hierarchical, and most of the important roles within the tribes are typically reserved for men or boys, including the Big Chief, Spy Boy, Flag Boy, and Wild Man. However, there have been exceptions over the years. According to a 1975 The Times-Picayune interview with Big Chief Paul Longpre of the Golden Blades, Big Chief Daniel Lambert’s sister Amelia served as spy girl for his gang the Wild Squat Toulas in the 1920s. In recent years, Karen-kaia Livers has filled the role of Wild Man as “Wild Woman Kahina” with the Guardians of the Flame.
Most commonly, women in the tribe will assist the men with sewing their costumes, a tedious process that can take up to a year but results in resplendent suits of feathers, sequins, rhinestones, and patches. But, according to Harrison-Nelson, after contributing to this tradition, many women simply put on their masks and are rendered invisible.
The prime role for women in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is the role of queen – Mardi Gras Indian queens, maroon queens, African-Indian queens, and big queens are just some of the titles used. Many tribes also have second and third queens, like second and third chiefs. Each position within a tribe serves a particular purpose. Spy boys, for example, run ahead of their tribe to look out for other approaching gangs, ultimately communicating that back to the big chief. Queens are no different in that they have a role to play.
According to Karen Celestan, “Queens battle the label of being a ‘mere embellishment’ to the big chief of the culture at-large.” The queen’s role as a “mere embellishment,” as Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. once told his daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson– to act as an accessory to make the Big Chief prettier– has been and is still practiced throughout different gangs. Progressive queens, says Celestan, have worked to further this role “through works of authenticity and reverence for the sacredness of the practices…”
Like all those who “mask Indian,” as is traditionally said, the queens spend a substantial amount of time throughout the year creating their own suits. The suits are not only a beautiful piece of artistry but allow the Queen who created it to feel beautiful inside and out.
In addition to building their suits, many queens see their role as multi-faceted. As Gina Montana, Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas, sees it, the queen’s role is to act as a peacemaker and protectress. And, if all else fails with the Spy Boy and Flag Boy, for example, the Queen will make sure to fill those gaps to serve her Big Chief, ultimately acting as the Big Chief’s right hand. Queens also are frequently known to teach children of the tribe sewing, beading, and gang signals, passing along this important lineage from one generation to the next.
It would be ambitious to highlight every current and former queen within this vibrant tradition. There are, perhaps, hundreds. Every Mardi Gras Indian queen makes significant cultural contributions to her tribe, in one way or another, helping to carry on a tradition that is hundreds of years old. Highlighted here are just a few of these many, many women:
Big Queen Rita Johnson, Mohawk Hunters
Big Queen Rita Johnson of the Mohawk Hunters has been masking for over sixty years, and is the longest continuously masking queen. Beginning in 1955 at the age of fifteen, she began masking with the Parakeets before becoming Big Queen of the Mohawk Hunters. In 2006, the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame awarded her the Crystal Feather Award to honor her contributions to the tradition.
Former Big Queen Barbara Sparks, Yellow Jackets
Now an ancestor, former Big Queen of the Yellow Jackets Barbara Sparks masked for more than forty years until she passed away in 2008. Perhaps the first queen, according to Harrison-Nelson, to wear a full headdress and crown, she also led the gang herself one Mardi Gras day when her husband, Big Chief Thomas Sparks, was too ill to do so himself. Sparks was also the first recipient of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Crystal Feather Award. This “Queen’s Choice” award honors those queens who have made significant contributions to the Mardi Gras Indian culture.
Big Queen Gina Montana, Yellow Pocahontas
Gina Montana is Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas and second cousin to the legendary chief of chiefs, Allison “Tootie” Montana. She began masking in 1995, while in her thirties, with the Yellow Pocahontas. Like many in this tradition, her ancestry includes Native American, specifically Choctaw, heritage. She received the Queen’s Choice Award in 2010.
Mardi Gras Indians queens like the ones above, as well as so many others, have made significant contributions to preserving their unique cultural traditions. More than a “mere embellishment,” they occupy an important space in the culture and are vital for passing along traditions to younger generations. Next time you see a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, don’t forget to look for the queen.
Tribal Queen Littdell “Queen Bee” Banister, Creole Wild West
Tribal Queen Littdell “Queen Bee” Banister has masked for over forty years with the Creole Wild West, the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in the city. Initially, she began masking at the same time as her son, Honey. Like many queens, a male in her life served as an impetus for becoming more heavily involved in the tradition which she has dedicated much of her life to. She also claims Choctaw ancestry and received the Crystal Feather Award in 2008.
Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Guardians of the Flame
Big Queen, or Maroon Queen, Cherice Harrison-Nelson (Queen Reesie) of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society is perhaps one of the best known queens within the broader New Orleans society. The daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., who led four tribes including Guardians of the Flame, she was born into this culture but worked to create her own space. When her father turned down her request to mask with him, she became second queen with another tribe before ultimately becoming Big Queen of Guardians of the Flame. Queen Reesie is co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. She also organized the current exhibit Queens, Baby Dolls and Social & Pleasure Clubs: Tradition and Rituals at the Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library on view through March 24.