by Suzanne Labry
Mardi Gras Indians Honored in Haley Story Quilt Project
New Orleans, Louisiana, is a fascinating city—a world unto itself in many ways. It is renowned for its complicated history, influential music, delicious food, diverse cultures, and its celebratory aspect—particularly during Mardi Gras season, which in New Orleans stretches from Twelfth Night to Ash Wednesday. One of the most colorful traditions there is that of the Mardi Gras Indians, which is unique to the city’s African American community.
Guardians of the Flame - New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. (Back row, left to right) CheriCe (Big Queen) Harrison-Nelson, Donald (Big Chief) Harrison Sr., Brian Nelson. (Front row) Kiel and Christian Scott. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
According to Dr. Ansel Augustine, a member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe himself, many historians say the history of Mardi Gras dates back to when African American slaves would run and hide in the bayous around Louisiana. The Native Americans would take in the escaped slaves, thus bringing about the tradition.
“The term ‘Mardi Gras’ Indians came about because the tribes would take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day to ‘meet’ other tribes throughout the city to engage in various rituals… there are almost 40 different Mardi Gras Indian tribes,” Dr. Augustine says.
“All pay homage to the Native and African ancestors through the suits they sew all year. The feathers and ornate headdresses pay homage to the Native Americans. The beadwork and songs/chants are African. All can be traced back to songs and drumming that took place during the gathering of slaves, natives, and free people of color in Congo Square in New Orleans in the 1700s.”
The Haley Story Quilt is a beaded quilt with artwork on the theme of Environmental Justice. It was created from drawings by CheriCe Harrison-Nelson’s elementary school class using the beading techniques of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian Tribe.Although in recent decades the fame of the Mardi Gras Indians (or Black Masking/Masquerading Indians, as they call themselves) has mushroomed far beyond their New Orleans neighborhoods (encouraged in part by the success of the 1976 The Wild Tchoupitoulas album recorded by Big Chief Jolly Landry’s nephews, the Neville Brothers), the tradition nevertheless remains an exclusive one: self-contained, self-supporting, and not intended for the entertainment of outsiders.
But the Indians’ celebrations are so exuberant and their suits (to call them “costumes” is considered an insult) are so spectacular that it is difficult for those not part of the tradition to remain disinterested.
Every year, a new suit is made, with intricate hand-beaded designs being an integral part of the overall creation. When I learned that some quilts had been made by a storied Mardi Gras Indian family that featured beading in their distinctive style,
I had to find out more.
CheriCe Harrison-Nelson is New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian royalty. She is the daughter of Donald Harrison, Sr., who was the founder and Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian tribe until his death in 1998. She is now the tribe’s Big Queen.
Her mother is Herreast Harrison, educator and founder of the Guardians Institute, which aims to preserve “New Orleans’ indigenous cultural arts and West African/New World oral traditions.” Her brother is famed alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison, Jr., and her nephew, Brian, directed the award-winning 2010 Mardi Gras Indian film Keeper of the Flame. Both Donald and Brian have served as Big Chiefs.
Another nephew is trumpeter and stretch music pioneer Christian Scott, also a member of the tribe. The HBO series by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, “Treme,” features characters based on CheriCe’s father and brother. The list of credentials could continue, but suffice it to say that CheriCe’s roots in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition are deep.
Those roots, and her family’s longstanding commitment to ensuring the continuation of the tradition through education, inspired CheriCe to initiate the Haley Story Quilt Project some years ago. At that time, she was an elementary school teacher at Oretha Castle Haley School in New Orleans.
A second quilt included environment-inspired beadwork blocks but also honored the quilting legacy of CheriCe’s female family members in that it was made primarily by CheriCe, her sisters, and mother.“I conceived the idea along with my mother, Herreast Johnson Harrison, in the late 1980s. We wanted to create a work of art combining traditions from the Harrison and Johnson sides of our family. My maternal grandmother, Mattie Pendleton Pryor Johnson, was a fourth-generation quilter. She began quilting as a young girl of only seven years old with her great grandmother, grandmother and mother,” CheriCe explains. “Originally the intent was to depict important events in our family.”
The idea was put on hold until 1994 when the Guardians of the Flame became a partner in Junebug Productions' Environmental Justice Project.
“In 1996 the school principal embraced and expanded the concept of creating a beaded quilt with artwork on the theme, Environmental Justice, from my class. We created the quilt using the beading techniques of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. Student-generated drawings on their environmental concerns were beaded by teachers, students, and parents with guidance and assistance from Guardians of the Flame tribe members.”
True to the innovative spirit that underlies just about everything in the African American community in New Orleans, the idea of the original Haley Story Quilt Project exploring the environmental justice theme morphed and evolved to eventually include not one, but three quilts.
The second quilt was larger than the first, and although it too included environment-inspired beadwork blocks, it skewed more toward honoring the quilting legacy of CheriCe’s female family members in that it was made primarily by CheriCe, her sisters, and mother.
Donald Harrison, Sr. created this portrait of his wife, Herreast, in the beading style of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians.A third quilt featured beadwork on the environmental theme from drawings made by students at Rabouin High School as part of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day in 2000. All three quilts were displayed in a variety of venues, including the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. “These quilts were part of an academically-based curriculum to involve children in becoming aware of their history and culture through creative instruction,” CheriCe says.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the city on August 29, 2005, many things irrevocably changed in New Orleans. Whole neighborhoods were devastated, including those where the schools involved in the Haley Story Quilt Project were based. CheriCe was able to rescue the first two quilts, but the third one made by Rabouin High School students was damaged and “was put out on the curb to be hauled off after Katrina,” CheriCe explains.
The first two quilts are now part of the holdings of the Guardians Institute. In that way, these quilts are themselves part of CheriCe’s family’s effort to guard the flame of tradition that honors and preserves not only Mardi Gras Indians, but also the legacy of African American quilters in New Orleans.