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Celebration of the Nation
Mardi Gras Indians Honored at Hall of Fame Ceremony
This weekend, Mardi Gras Indians leave their battles behind, and come together for a celebration. Sunday, July 29, marks 14th annual Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame Memorial, Awards, and Induction Ceremony at The Ashé Cultural Arts Center (1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd).
All are invited to celebrate in the history of Black Indian culture—a New Orleans fixture that has persisted and evolved throughout the last century.
Founder and Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Cherice Harrison-Nelson said that she sees the people being honored as everyday heroes, which is especially dear to her as an educator.
The third generation Mardi Gras Indian cofounded the ceremony with Dr. Roslyn J. Smith as a way to commemorate the life of her father and Mardi Gras Indian legend Big Chief Donald Harrison in a way that was empowering for the community rather than exploitative.
“Dr. Smith said, ‘Let’s do something where they can have something for the community to honor your daddy’s memory.’ That’s how the idea was born. Initially it was housed at Oretha Castle Haley School until the August 29 event when it shut down,” explained Harrison-Nelson.
“The fact that it began at a school is so appropriate because I always want my students to know that heroes don’t only exist in textbooks. They’re everyday people doing extraordinary things,” Harrison-Nelson said.
There are a total of twelve categories including a Cultural Preservationist Award that will go to Divine Prince Ty Enmecca, a Crystal Feather Award for the famous Big Chief Darryl Montana, and a Queen’s Choice award for Big Queen Pauline “Ree” Johnson. A Lifetime Achievement Award for Music will be awarded to none other than the recently-departed Lionel Paul “Uncle Lionel” Batiste (officially given prior to his passing earlier this month).
Harrison-Nelson said the MGIHOF’s decision to honor the late local legend and bass drummer was simple.
“Our Vice President chose Uncle Lionel, which is appropriate because of the work he’s done with us with our book program. We’re honored to have him receive that award because he’s a model for the culture of New Orleans and also for encouraging children to read,” said Harrison-Nelson.
The decision to honor Uncle Lionel and the current debate running through the community about the way the public and the media portrayed his death harken back to the beginnings of the Hall of Fame ceremony.
Like Uncle Lionel, Indian Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. (1933-1998) was a public figure. Harrison-Nelson said that following his death, everyone “wanted a piece of him.”
“He wore red silk shirts, red handkerchiefs, and people I didn’t know would call me asking for his things after he died. It was very disturbing--I was at work when someone tracked me down and called to try to ask for his things, that’s how self-centered people were,” Harrison-Nelson said.
During the two week period of parades and celebration of Uncle Lionel's life, the Treme legend's things - and even his body - were in similar demand.
The simmering pot came to a boil when New Orleans native and acclaimed actor Wendell Pierce criticized local artist Tracy Thomson via Twitter for what he originally perceived as irreverence and exploitation. Thomson distributed a free, downloadable image of a watch that closely resembled the one Batiste always donned on his left wrist, and Pierce criticized the artist for "pimping" and “profiteering” off of the death of an artists without compensating his family or his image.
Although Pierce later apologized once he realized that Thomson was not directly profiting from her creation, the debate spoke to the same issue that Harrison-Nelson encountered upon her father's passing.
Furthering the debate, outspoken trumpet player Nicholas Payton fired a missive last week entitled, On The Real New Orleans Second Line. In the post, he writes that he sees of New Orleans becoming “a caricature of its former self.” Specifically, Payton condemned those outside the community for treating Batiste’s funeral as a sideshow and photographing his upright body, blatantly disregarding requests from his family that visitors leave their cameras at home. (The Times-Picayune has said their photographer says he got permission from the family to photograph the body).
Payton writes that the treatment of Batiste is a symptom of a larger problem. New Orleanians are becoming tourists within their own city:
Although Payton acknowledges that New Orleans’ rich culture sets it apart from other cities, he wants readers to understand that a second line is something people do here to celebrate the life of the deceased.
"There is a respectful way to celebrate the deceased," he writes. "We’ve all but forgotten that."
Mardi Gras Indians have equally been at the forefront of the debate about maintaining rituals, as Treme and increased national focus on New Orleans has ignited interest in the tradition like never before. Last year, lawyer Ashlye Keaton, who often represents Mardi Gras Indians, started a legal push to copyright their costumes. Keaton told NoDef last year that she started the push to prevent "abuse."
Despite these moves, the community holds up the ceremony as a chance to recognize Mardi Gras Indians' place outside commerce. According to Harrison-Nelson, the ceremony is a celebration of New Orleans’ African-American community’s autonomy from the constraints of mainstream American art.
“We [the Mardi Gras Indians] weren’t being recognized by traditional art organizations. There are obstacles such as municipal wars, economic injustice, and somehow they find a way to celebrate and bring beauty to their communities,” Harrison-Nelson said. “People have found a way to celebrate with music, dance, and ritual art that they wear. We refuse to bow down to the aesthetics that Western art may place on us.”
The awards ceremony will be held from 3:00-4:30pm, and school supplies for children will be distributed following the event.
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