Rebecca Santana – Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – At this time of year you will find Grand Chief Joseph “Monk” Boudreau: at his home in New Orleans he sews beads with needle and thread, collecting exquisite outfits worn by the city’s famous Indians Mardi Gras.
Almost every year since childhood, Boudreau went out on Fat Tuesday morning in a new costume created by his own hand, accompanied by other members of his “tribe” and singing distinctive music that he helped share from the world.
“I can’t stop. I can’t. Because I was told as a child … “You keep the tradition, because if you let it go, it will disappear forever,” said Boudreau, sitting at his home in New Orleans. “And I have to make sure my son and my grandchildren take this torch and carry it on.”
In the 80s, Boudreau was the leader of a group of Mardi Gras Indians called the Golden Eagles, known both as a leader older than tradition and as a music career that lasted decades and took him far from his hometown. This year, Boudreau is preparing for the first two-year celebration of Fat Tuesday after the end of the pandemic last year’s festivities, and for Fr. April trip to the Grammywhere he was nominated for his first Grammy.
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The Mardi Gras Indian tradition – also called the Black Mask Indians – has been a central part of the Black Carnival, at least since the late 1800s. Participants of various groups create beaded, gem-decorated outfits and headdresses with feathers, combining elements of Indian and African heritage with the carnival, and parade through the streets of the city.
It is believed that the tradition originated in part as a way to pay tribute to Native Americans for their help to black people and runaway slaves and for their resistance to colonization. It also evolved at a time when segregation forbade black people from participating in white-only parades.
Approximately 28 to 30 tribes with names such as Wild Magnolias and Hunters behind the 9th Chamber are constantly involved, said Tyrone Casby, who heads his own tribe and is an officer of the Mardi Gras Indian Council. Some get their names from their neighborhoods or from Native American tribes.
Leaders are known as bosses. There is also a battle-spy who spies the way of the tribe, and a boy-flag who sends messages from the spy to the chief.
Using images of Indians and tribal names, the Mardi Gras Indians sometimes raised the question of whether they unfairly adopted indigenous culture.
Jeffrey Darensburg, a mixed Creole writer and activist who is a member of the Atakapa-Ishak nation and lives in New Orleans, says he often asks questions from Indians across the country who see Mardi Gras Indians and wonder why black people are so dressed the way. But, he said, many black people in Louisiana, including the Mardi Gras Indians, have Native American heritage.
What the Mardi Gras Indians are doing is a holiday of “resistance to oppression,” he said, and quite far from things like using Native American names as sports mascots. And, like many things in a city that is hundreds of years old, it is a tradition that goes back to a complex multicultural heritage, he said.
“People need to understand the tradition first, and then they can make an assessment,” Darrensburg said.
For Boudreau, who had grandparents Chokto and Cherokee, this is a revelation of his legacy, which he makes with respect and a sense of responsibility for preserving the tradition.
He and other Indians have been preparing their colorful costumes for months. Then tribes, such as the Golden Eagles Budro, take to the streets on Fat Tuesday, looking for other tribes in competition for who is the most beautiful.
Budro was a child when he created his first costume. His father introduced him to the tradition. He describes that first outfit as “torn,” but says other participants supported it, and the following year it got better.
In his teens there were problems. At age 17, he spent nearly a year at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for police beatings. And he never graduated from high school: “I graduated from high school. They taught me everything I know. ”
By age 19, Boudreau was on a path that would eventually lead him to a Grammy. He became the leader of his tribe, and he has held that position ever since.
Music is an integral part of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, where tribes sing songs about their history and customs. Executives use a music bell and answer to communicate with members when they are outdoors. On the eve of Mardi Gras Indians are engaged in music in bars.
Budro is credited with being one of the first Mardi Gras Indians to record music, essentially taking what was an art form known almost exclusively to the city’s African-American population, and helped bring it to the world.
Eventually it became his career.
Originally, Boudreau performed with other Mardi Gras Indians Bo Dolis in the film “Wild Magnolias”, which combined the singing style of the Mardi Gras Indians with electric funk. After a split in the early 2000s, Boudreau began releasing his own albums. He regularly performs at festivals and venues around the world, and in 2016 was recognized National Endowment for the Arts Scholar of National Heritage.
“I’ve performed with almost every musician in New Orleans,” says Boudreau.
On his latest album, Bloodstains and Teardrops, Budro sings and plays the tambourine with other musicians on guitar, drums, harmonica and violin. In this Grammy nomination in the Regional Roots category, he competes with his grandson and son, who were nominated as part of a band called Cha Wa.
Budro creates all the lyrics, but doesn’t write them in advance, and goes into the studio without notes and comes up with songs from his experience, just like he runs his tribe on Fat Tuesday.
“He’s a damn good improviser on the street,” said Nick Spitzer, a folklorist at Tulein University and producer of American Routes Public Radio.
“Bloodstains and Teardrops” combines Indian music by Mardi Gras with Jamaican sounds and was made in part during a trip to Jamaica and then at the studio of longtime employee Boudreau Thabo Benoit in Hume, southwest of New Orleans.
“He is still taking Mardi Gras Indian music in new directions,” said Keith Spera, music author of The Times Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate.
And Boudreau has plans for more; maybe an album of drums or an album with his son and grandson, says his manager Ruben Williams.
But it is in the future. In the meantime, he is looking forward to coming out on Fat Tuesday, where he will be greeted by a large crowd and then lead his tribe through the streets of the city.
And then he returns home, where Budro prepares kebabs for the crowd.
“Everyone is happy,” he said.
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