NEW ORLEANS (AP) — This time of year, there’s really only one place you’ll find Big Chief Joseph “Monk” Boudreaux: in his New Orleans house sewing beadwork with needle and thread as he puts together the elaborate outfits worn by the city’s famed Mardi Gras Indians.
Almost every year since he was a child, Boudreaux has stepped out on the morning of Fat Tuesday in a new suit, created by his own hand, accompanied by other members of his “tribe” and singing the distinctive music he has helped share with the world.
“I can’t stop. I can’t. Because I was told as a kid … ‘You keep the tradition going because if you let it go, it’s going to be gone forever,’” Boudreaux said, sitting in his New Orleans home. “And I’ve got to make sure my son and my grandkids, that they take that torch and carry it on.”
At 80 years old, Boudreaux is head of a Mardi Gras Indians group called the Golden Eagles, known both as a leading elder of the tradition and for a musical career that has spanned decades and taken him far from his hometown. This year finds Boudreaux preparing for both the first Fat Tuesday celebration in two years after the pandemic canceled last year’s festivities, and for an April trip to the Grammys, where he is nominated for his first Grammy.
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The Mardi Gras Indian — also called Black masking Indian — tradition has been a central part of the Black Carnival experience here since at least the late 1800s. Members of various groups create beaded, bejeweled outfits and feathered headdresses that combine elements of Native American and African heritage with Carnival, and parade through the city’s streets.
The tradition is believed to have started in part as a way to pay homage to area Native Americans for their assistance to Black people and runaway slaves and for their resistance to colonization. It also developed at a time when segregation barred Black residents from taking part in whites only parades.
An estimated 28 to 30 tribes with names like the Wild Magnolias and 9th Ward Hunters consistently take part, said Tyrone Casby, who heads his own tribe and is an officer on the Mardi Gras Indian Council. Some derive their names from their neighborhoods or from Native American tribes.
Leaders are known as chiefs. There’s also the spyboy, who scouts the tribe’s route, and flag boy, who sends messages from the spyboy back to the chief.
With their use of Native American imagery and tribal names, the Mardi Gras Indians have sometimes raised questions of whether they’re unjustly adopting Native culture.
Jeffery Darensbourg, a mixed Indigenous Creole writer and activist who is a member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation and lives in New Orleans, says he often fields questions from Native Americans around the country who see Mardi Gras Indians and wonder why Black people are dressed that way. But, he said, a lot of Black people in Louisiana including Mardi Gras Indians have Native American heritage.
What the Mardi Gras Indians are doing is a celebration of “resistance to oppression,” he said, and a far cry from things like using Native American names as sports mascots. And like many things in a city that’s hundreds of years old, it’s a tradition that pulls from a complicated, multicultural heritage, he said.
“People should understand the tradition first, and then they can make an evaluation about it,” Darensbourg said.
For Boudreaux, who had Choctaw and Cherokee grandparents, it is an expression of his heritage, one he makes with respect and with a sense of responsibility of carrying on tradition.
He and other Indians spend months preparing their colorful suits. Then tribes like Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles take to the streets on Fat Tuesday seeking out other tribes in a competition for who is the prettiest.
Boudreaux was a child when he created his first suit. His father introduced him to the tradition. He describes that first outfit as “raggedy” but says other members were supportive and the next year it got better.
His teenage years had challenges. At 17, he spent nearly a year in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for hitting a police officer. And he’s never finished high school: “I graduated from the elders. They taught me everything I know.”
By 19, Boudreaux was on the path that would eventually lead him to the Grammys. He became his tribe’s chief, and it’s a position he’s held ever since.
Music is an integral part of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, with tribes singing songs about their history and customs. Chiefs use a musical call and response to communicate with members when they’re out on the streets. In the runup to Mardi Gras, the Indians practice their music in bars.
Boudreaux is credited with being one of the first Mardi Gras Indians to record music, essentially taking what had been an art form known almost exclusively to the city’s African American population and helping bring it to the world.
It ended up becoming his career.
Boudreaux originally performed with fellow Mardi Gras Indian chief Bo Dollis in the Wild Magnolias, which married the singing style of Mardi Gras Indians with electric funk. After a split in the early 2000s, Boudreaux started producing his own albums. He regularly appears at festivals and venues worldwide, and in 2016 he was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.
“I done performed with just about every musician in New Orleans,” says Boudreaux.
On the latest album, called “Bloodstains and Teardrops,” Boudreaux sings and plays tambourine with other musicians on guitar, drums, harmonica and fiddle. In this Grammy nomination in the Regional Roots Category he is competing against his grandson and son, who were nominated as part of a band called Cha Wa.
Boudreaux creates all the lyrics but doesn’t write them ahead of time, instead going into the studio without notes and inventing songs from his experiences, similar to how he leads his tribe on Fat Tuesday.
“He’s a damn good improviser in the street,” said Nick Spitzer, a folklorist at Tulane University and producer of public radio’s American Routes.
“Bloodstains and Teardrops” combines Mardi Gras Indian music with Jamaican sounds and was produced partly during a trip to Jamaica and then at the studio of Boudreaux’s longtime collaborator Tab Benoit in Houma, southwest of New Orleans.
“He’s still taking Mardi Gras Indian music in fresh directions,” said Keith Spera, music writer for The Times Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate.
And Boudreaux has plans for more; maybe a percussion album or an album with his son and grandson, says his manager Rueben Williams.
But that’s in the future. For now, he’s looking forward to coming out the door on Fat Tuesday, where he’ll be greeted by a large crowd and then lead his tribe through the city’s streets.
And then he returns home, where Boudreaux barbecues for the crowd.
“Everybody’s welcome,” he said.