Cheering, chanting and largely optimistic members of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian community filled the City Council chamber Wednesday night at a meeting intended to bring closure to a decade-old police attack on tribes at A.L. Davis Park.
The 2005 incident is largely credited with setting the New Orleans Police Department and the Indians on a path toward reconciliation after many years in which members of the tribes said they endured abuse at the hands of officers.
The always fraught relationship between police and the tribes exploded on St. Joseph’s Night, when NOPD officers surrounded Indians at the Central City park with guns drawn. Indians were forced to the ground as police units with sirens blaring raced around the site and officers demanded they remove their costumes, a humiliating affront, or be hauled off to jail.
That incident, witnessed by hundreds and captured on video, prompted a special council meeting called by then-Councilman Oliver Thomas, with the goal of defusing the situation.
As Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, the city’s foremost Indian leader, spoke at that meeting, telling of police abuses against Indians in the past, he suddenly collapsed and died. Video of that speech and Montana’s collapse were played at Wednesday’s meeting.
The council formally dedicated the lectern for public speakers in the chamber to Montana on Wednesday.
“The people who mask and the culture bearers will learn from his legacy,” said relative Gina Montana, big queen of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. “They’ll learn from Tootie Montana and bring peace to our city, peace to our heart and peace to our neighborhoods.”
The incidents of 2005 are seen as a turning point that eventually led to the relatively positive relationship between the city and the tribes in recent years. Indians have become a symbol of the city, and the NOPD now instructs officers not to interfere with their celebrations.
“What happens here tonight starts the conversation and starts the process of making sure we won’t have this conversation anymore,” said Sabrina Montana, daughter-in-law of Tootie Montana.
The traditional animosity police directed toward the Indian tribes was born of racism, several speakers said, with one comparing the police attitude toward the tribes to the racial hostility that motivated the murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. And, several argued, it still exists in the way some NOPD officers treat black residents in their daily interactions.
“If you don’t respect me with regular clothes on, you’re not going to respect me with Indian clothes on,” one speaker said.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry said there is more work to be done, and she suggested the city needs to support the Indians better, possibly by integrating them into programs such as NOLA for Life, its violence reduction program.
“Yes, we can celebrate coming this far, but we see how much further we need to go,” Guidry said. “While we’re celebrating your culture — the most unique culture in the world, totally unique to New Orleans — we are not doing enough to support it and help it thrive.”