When Mardi Gras Indians across the city step out in the early hours of Feb. 28 to reveal the new suits they've been working on all year, they may not know it, but they'll have been beaten to the punch by the young members of the Wild Opelousas.
The tribe's big costume reveal comes Feb. 23, right before the Mardi Gras break, in front of the members' fellow students at Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers.
The tribe came into existence a few years ago through the efforts of theater teacher Liz Arias.
"I had to learn, too," she said of the Indians' traditions and costumes. "I researched a lot, talked to a lot of people -- friends who are Mardi Gras Indians. And some was trial and error," she said.
She enlisted local Indians, including Chief Kevin Turner, of the Black Mohaws, and Jamal Casby, of the Mohawk Hunters, to work with the students.
"The kids learn history and culture and tradition from people who are doing it," Arias said.
"Indians come in to do interview workshops, the oral passing down of what they learned from other people. We looked at the videos 'All on a Mardi Gras Day' and 'Bury the Hatchet.' But the most significant information comes from Indians."
She describes her twice-weekly seventh-grade sewing classes for the tribe as "controlled chaos," but a recent visit found the students busy and interested, drawing patterns, sewing jewels and headpieces, and beading images for patches on the Indian suits. That they're studying a part of their local culture likely helps keep their interest, but so does the fact that this is a project they chose.
"In 2014 ... I polled the students to see what they're interested in (to do next). A student suggested Mardi Gras Indian suits and that we have a tribe. That's our New Orleans culture, too.
"So I ran the idea by the class and everybody agreed, and the principal loved the idea. We had to find funding, so I applied for a grant from the (New Orleans) Jazz & Heritage Foundation," she said.
Studying the Indians fits into Arias' theater curriculum in several ways. The kids hand-sew the suits, so they're learning costume-making. They also study the characters within the tribe, and then they perform those roles. And studying background on the history and culture behind the Indians is no different than, say, learning about the customs and language of 16th-century England before performing Shakespeare.
Except that for the kids, it's probably a lot more fun.
Only a handful of Arias' theater students, ages 8 through 15, are tribe members, but all theater classes -- about 200 kids per a year -- are learning about the Mardi Gras Indians. Kids as young as first grade learn about Native Americans and make headdresses; older students learn about Native Americans' interaction with African slaves and how African-Americans honor them with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
"They (Native Americans) were similar to African traditions and culture," Arias said. They both used beading, oral histories and had a focus on nature. "Both were very spiritual as well, and both honor their ancestors," she added.
On a recent school day, diminutive 11-year-old Tycen Grant was practicing his sewing skills in theater class. Dressed in a green Martin Behrman Charter School jacket, khakis and a blue necktie, he didn't much look the part of a Mardi Gras Indian big chief.
He came a little closer to achieving that appearance at an after-school session for tribe members, where he danced and sported a big chief staff under the tutelage of Turner, who worked with the kids on singing and moving as Indians.
But come Feb. 23, Tycen will slip into the role of big chief just as he slips into his completed costume, which has beaded panels depicting an Egyptian theme.
When the tribe comes out, members will be singing the traditional "Indian Red," which Turner calls a battle hymn for parading. "They'll be doing some of the Mardi Gras Indian songs that are traditions, Arias said.
"It's just fun," Tycen said.
Second Queen Regine Roberts, 13, has a different outlook on the Wild Opelousas. Her suit is a tribute to nature, in reaction to the proposed North Dakota oil pipeline drawing recent protests because it would pass through Standing Rock Native American burial grounds.
She wants her suit to have "a dark and mysterious watery feel."
Regine was in the class, too, but she sometimes takes her decorative patches home to work on them.
Being second queen is an honor, she said. "You don't just get the title. You have to earn it. Your hard work pays off."
The big queen is Regine's sister, Erie Bois, who has finished at Behrman and is a freshman at Edna Karr High School. Arias allows past students to stay in the tribe as long as they are committed to the work.
Those are the ground rules for belonging to the tribe, Arias said: commitment to the sewing and to good behavior.
Regine said the Mardi Gras Indians are also about coming together with family and friends.
"After segregation and slavery, the Indians use this way of culture and family to come together," she said. "Different suits all mean the same thing: the Indians coming together as one and letting people see their work."
To see the work of this young tribe, check out the Mohawk Hunters in Algiers on Mardi Gras or on Super Sunday March 19 in A.L. Davis Park at Washington & LaSalle Streets.