A cultural tradition: The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame presents awards Sunday, 8/14

Since its inception in 1998, the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame has honored members of the cultural community with a ceremony featuring a presentation of awards including the coveted Crystal Feather. This year’s event takes place on Sunday at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in Central City from 2:00–5:00 PM. I am proud to announce that I am receiving the “scribe” award, which is presented to writers who have supported the cultural community in their work.

Besides bestowing the annual awards, the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame has created photographic yearbooks celebrating the various positions that make up a black Indian tribe including spy boys, flag boys, and queens. This year, they mounted a photo exhibit of boys and young men who mask as Mardi Gras Indians.

The exhibit is on display at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. Also central to the mission of the organization is their listings, or roll calls in the Hall of Fame’s vernacular, of the names and members of the various tribes. This information is invaluable to individuals seeking to understand the evolution of the ancient cultural tradition, which is known to date back as far as the late 19th century and possibly further.

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The HOF has listed over 800 Mardi Gras Indians representing some 80 tribes. This roll call includes tribes that have worldwide reputations such as the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, tribes that are local legends like the White Eagles and the Creole Wild West (said to be the oldest tribe in the city) and tribes with whimsical names such as the Bumble Bee Hunters.

The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame was conceived by Dr. Roslyn Smith and Cherise Harrison-Nelson (pictured at top) as a way to honor the legacy of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. Harrison (pictured at left) was a significant figure in the Mardi Gras Indian community as well as a major influence on writers like myself because of his openness and willingness to discuss the community, which was shrouded in secrecy at the time in the late 1980s. There is even a book about him, which I recommend to anyone interested in the tradition.

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Cherise is his daughter. His son, Donald Harrison, Jr., (pictured above) is a world-renowned jazz musician and also a big chief. His grandson, Brian Nelson is a big chief as well and a filmmaker focusing on the documenting the traditions of this community. His widow, Herreast J. Harrison, is also a key part of the organization, the community and the matriarch of her family.

When the organization first started, both Dr. Smith and Harrison-Nelson worked at Oretha Castle Haley elementary school. The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame ceremonies were held at the school prior to Hurricane Katrina.

These affairs had a profound influence on the children at the school because the ceremony took place on the school’s playground while the kids sat in awe as Indians, many in full regalia, sang the old songs, danced, and threw the secret signals. I wonder how many of those kids became Mardi Gras Indians?

Since the ceremony moved to the Ashe Cultural Arts Center and is held on a Sunday in August, there are fewer children in attendance. But the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame has held onto its roots by holding annual book drives, having “conversations with the elders,” and other efforts to support and inform the children of the community. There are at least two tribes composed entirely of youngsters.

While the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame ceremony is an event for and about the community, it is also a chance for the followers of the Indian tradition to get a glimpse inside the culture apart from what happens on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night, Super Sunday, and on the stages at Jazz Fest and other venues. I strongly recommend that you check it out and if you can, write a check to help support this important institution as it approaches its twentieth anniversary.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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