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Gambit Weekly Big Chief's Big Show

By Geraldine Wyckoff

July 14, 1997:  Friday marks a milestone in the history of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians and the New Orleans Museum of Art. NOMA is presenting an exhibition titled He's the Prettiest: A Tribute to Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana's Fifty Years of Mardi Gras Indian Suiting. It is the first time Mardi Gras Indian material will be displayed at the prestigious museum.

"I've been wanting to do a Mardi Gras Indian show for many years," says William Fagaly, assistant director at NOMA. "I feel it's a strong folk art form unique to New Orleans. The Indians have been overlooked not only by the museum but by the New Orleans community at large."

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 31, will include six recent suits Montana wore as big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Indian gang. These three-dimensional, feathered and beaded wonders are works of art, and each year's product seemingly is grander than the last. The white with gold accent suit and crown he produced and wore for 1997's Mardi Gras is testament to that -- it is truly magnificent. The exhibit also will include photographs of Montana and his gang taken through the years by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick and a video called The Legacy Lives On.

In conjunction with the exhibit, special programs are scheduled, beginning with Sunday's sewing demonstration, "Bead by Bead by Bead by Bead," led by Montana's son and second chief, Darryl Montana. It will be a participatory workshop, with Darryl sharing his art from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. In addition, Darryl's wonderful, Egyptian-inspired "King Tut" suit, which he crafted for this year's Mardi Gras, will be on display.

In preparation for the showing, Fagaly spent the days before 1997's Mardi Gras with Montana, his gang and family. He sewed, attended an Indian practice and finally came out for Carnival. He will share the experience through slides and a lecture on Sunday, July 20, followed by a "Conversation With the Chief" with Kalamu ya Salaam and members of the Yellow Pocahontas. On July 27, the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indian gang led by Big Chief Walter Cook will perform at the museum. A full-color catalog with text by Salaam will be available for purchase.

The traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians -- the making of the suits, the chants, the rituals -- are more than 100 years old. The Indians have carried on the heritage on their own without financial sponsorship or compensation and have beautified the streets for Mardi Gras, St. Joseph's nights and Super Sundays. Their rhythms have been woven into this city's music from the syncopation of jazz to the lyrics of R&B hits like "Iko Iko." In recent years, the Indians have been more visible, recording albums and performing at Jazz Fest and in nightclubs. And though they have received some recognition, they still have not really gained the acclaim that their talents and creations deserve. The work involved in creating a new suit often lasts a full year. It is a year of peeling fingers and bloodied hands from constant sewing as well as financial sacrifice.

"I'm happy to see that somebody is recognizing what I'm doing," says Montana, who has masked continuously as an Indian for half a century. "I'm proud of it, and my wife is proud of it." With the exhibit and workshops, his wish is for those who attend to gain a better understanding of the Indians, their traditions and his own personal work. "I hope this will dispel a lot of misconceptions about the Indians," says Montana. "I want people to know the truth about it."

Like many Mardi Gras Indians, Montana was introduced to the traditions through his family. His great uncle, Becate, was the founding chief of the Creole Wild West, and his father, Alfred, was the chief of the Eighth Ward Hunters. Other family members involved with the Indian heritage include Montana's brother, Edward, who was his second chief until he passed on; his son, who in 1998 will lead the gang; his wife, Joyce, who has been by his side for 44 years helping with the sewing; his daughter, cousins, grandchildren and in-laws.

"One thing I really want to stress in this exhibit is the family tradition," says Fagaly. "It is an achievement where the family unit is preserved." And though this exhibit focuses on Tootie Montana, Fagaly views it as "honoring all of the gangs in New Orleans."

Big Chief Tootie Montana had announced that 1997 -- his 50th year on the streets -- was the last year he would mask. And no, he won't lead the Yellow Pocahontas in 1998. But now he says he'll be back.

"I've got a special suit I'm workin' on for my comeback -- in my head," he says.

I'm not surprised, because artistic talents such as Tootie Montana's are difficult to suppress. All the more reason to celebrate the big chief -- his past achievements and those to come.

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