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.
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.