How a Little Bit of Soul Train Became Part of Mardi Gras Practice

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By Lolis Eric Elie

We’ve often seen Big Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) leading Indian practices. Watching those scenes, you get some sense of what it feels like to be in the room when those events are taking place. Every Sunday between New Year’s and Mardi Gras (and sometimes even before), Mardi Gras Indian tribes gather at whatever neighborhood bar they have chosen as their headquarters and perform the songs and dances that are central to their tradition. Community members and other spectators fill out the crowd, often joining in the chanting, but never in the dancing. That is reserved for Indians only.

But Mardi Gras Indian practice, like the term “Mardi Gras Indians,” is not easy to understand. The component words are simple enough. But the tradition doesn’t quite fit into the realm of more familiar regimens like football practice or band practice.

I talked to two Mardi Gras Indian chiefs about this tradition to get their insights. Howard Miller is a chief with the oldest Mardi Gras Indian gang, the Creole Wild West. He appears in two episodes this season, “The Greatest Love” and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.” I also talked to Big Chief Tyrone Casby of the Mohawk Hunters, the only Mardi Gras Indian gang based on the west bank of New Orleans.

Chief Howard:

It is a spiritual gathering. Like church or something like that. In the beginning it was a closed thing. It was done in the backyards and the kitchens of some people’s houses. And it really was a practice. It was about you learning what you were supposed to do when you were out there on the street. Everybody out there has a position. And every position has a role that they must play. This is what practice was for, to explain the role you were supposed to play.

It was different because you didn’t have that crowd of spectators that you have now. Back then it was just the Indians and people who were associated with the Indians. Everybody who was there would be taking a part in what was going on. You would have a circle back then, and you would get in the circle. If I came and got in the circle and said I was a spy boy, then any spy boy in there would come to meet me. It wasn’t like now where you come down the ‘Soul Train’ aisle.

As chiefs, we would only dance if one of us got happy. To see the chief dance, that was the greatest treat of the practice because you wouldn’t normally see him jumping up and dancing. But if the sprit hit him at the moment of what was going on, then you would see him and another chief with him.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, they still had that show of a practice. What you see now is something that evolved out of that. In the beginning, everybody couldn’t just show up; you had to be invited. If you were another Indian gang, I had to know that you were coming and we would practice together. It was supposed to be like a scrimmage between my tribe and your tribe. But now, all the rules have been suspended. By the time the ’70s came around, people started visiting practices uninvited. If I knew you had practice, I would go and join in. Then in the ’80s, everybody wanted to know where the Indians were, and everybody went to each other’s practice.

It wasn’t like it is now. Some of the older chiefs kind of blame me for that. They say that I started that ‘Soul Train’-line sh*t. I happened to get into a place on St. Andrew and Dryades streets. They’ve torn the building down, but it was a large place. At that time we had like 30-something Indians and a lot of them were young teenagers. We would invite everybody to our practice. So I could see, I would say, ‘Keep [the aisle] open,’ because there were so many people. But it wasn’t my intention to change the culture. Now that I’m a little older, a little wiser, I think about these things a bit more before I do them.

Big Chief Tyrone Casby of the Mohawk Hunters:

The practices were done in the neighborhoods where your tribe was located. From my understanding as a youth, it was a way of keeping people interested in the culture itself. It was done in bars after a length of time. The chants and the singing and dancing were being taught during practice. It was a way of maintaining the spirituality as well as the cultural significance. I had an older brother who masked. The drum beats used to get to me.

I go through the back door of the bar room. The strong link to the African heritage that we have really influences what we do today. We use drums, tambourines, cow bells, water bottles, wine bottles–whatever makes noise. Like the big 5-gallon Kentwood water bottles, you put some mallets on that and it makes a hell of a sound.

You do have other tribes who show their respect by coming to your practices. We try to maintain them as peaceful as possible. But if people call and say, ‘Hey I’m coming to your practice,’ then you are prepared when they come. We are trying to maintain the spirit that [legendary chiefs] Tootie [Allison Montana] and Robbe [Robert Lee] used to maintain.

The biggest thing you get from practice is the spirituality. You hear those drums and those tambourines, and it’s like being in an old Baptist church. You need that inspiration to go home and sew. Professionally, I’m a principal in a high school. But when I put that Indian suit on, I’m big chief and that’s the spirit and feeling I share.