One evening in the weeks before Mardi Gras 1994, Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana took a break from sewing his new suit to recount his history as big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas. The interview stretched well into the night, with topics ranging from Indian songs to the aftermath of the previous year's Mardi Gras, when Allison and other Indians protested what they called mistreatment at the hands of the New Orleans Police Department. Following a controversial 1993 Mardi Gras, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance supporting the Indians --Êbut that didn't stop new complaints about NOPD actions against Indians from resurfacing 11 years later. Late last month, Montana again returned to lead the charge against alleged police mistreatment. It would be the Chief of Chief's last stand.
The following are excerpts from the 1994 interview.
Q: How did you get your nickname?
A: My mother's cousin gave me that name. She used to come around every Mardi Gras day with her children. She'd say, "I'm coming to see my boy Tootie." And she died, and I masked in black that year. That year was the only time I ever masked in black. And it was pretty.
Q: What's that like, when you first imagine a costume idea?
A: I just sit down at night, and I like to wait until everybody's asleep -- which there ain't but two of us in this house, so I don't have to wait a long time. I've never gone to bed before my wife since we been together.
The house is quiet, and I just sit down, maybe drop my head in my hand, and start thinking. Boy, and here it come -- here it come -- and I have a scratch pad and I draw it. Sketch it right quick, while it's there.
You look at the other costumes, and they all look alike. But this suit that I'm making, when I get through with it, it'll be the first time that this particular costume ever entered into this world. That's how I look at it.
I'll show you how things go -- sometimes I'll be in that kitchen drawing, and I'll draw a design, and the first one I see, it looks like something new. And as I start working with it, I call my wife and say, "Look, how do you like this?" And she says, "Oh, but you've already had something like that." And I don't use that.
Q: Did you learn this from your father (Alfred Montana, former big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas)?
A: I might take it from the genes, because my daddy was a painter and a designer himself. But you see, he didn't show me anything, because I wasn't reared in the house with him.
Q: But he still helped you when you started out?
A: The first year I masked, I let him make my crown for me. And the first year he made it nice, and the next year he made it small. And I was ridiculed. So I told my dad, "Why did you cut my feathers short?" And I started making my own crown.
Q: How about your profession as a lather? Did that knowledge help you construct your suit?
A: Right. The type of work that I did had a lot to do with how I make my suit -- like breaking circles down into so many equal parts. That's what gave me the knowledge. I make my suit the way a building is put up. My trade helped me with designing my costume, and my designing my costume helped me with my trade. That's the reason why I knew how to bend and shape the iron, because I was used to doing it with cardboard. The basic way of doing it is the same.
Q: What was your mother's reaction when you started joining the Indians?
A: When I first told her as a kid she said, "Boy, you don't need to do that." Because she knew what trouble it was. And every Mardi Gras morning -- we're Catholic -- my mother would come around and pin a scapular on me. She's 93 and still living about three blocks from here, and she wouldn't go to bed until she called my house.
During these times, the Indians used to carry weapons. And that's why Mama never did want me to mask Indian.
Another thing about Mardi Gras when I was a kid was that it was a revenge day. If a guy had a misunderstanding with someone in the summer, he'd wait until Carnival day when the street was crowded, and he'd put on a woman's dress and he'd roll his pants up underneath that. And the only way you can trick him is if you're dressed like a woman too. All you'd hear is people scream and see a man fall with an ice pick in him, and he'd go into a barroom and leave that dress on the floor. Oh yeah, it used to be low-down.
Q: So how did the violence begin to lessen?
A: We had more second-line activity down on this side of Canal Street than they had up there. And we'd have people that followed us that never followed a second line before in their life. Decent people -- the kind of people that wouldn't be caught dead around a second line. If I'm not mistaken, we had a couple nuns follow us.
And the same guys masking Indian, they'd come down here to see the parade. So they can't afford to have fights and bad feelings among each other, because then they can't come down here to see parades. If you want to make trouble at Carnival, you catch it at the parades, and we'd run you uptown.
And now we're all friends. They come to my practice, and we go to theirs. I have no reason to have a private practice to scheme against the Creole Wild West, because the chief of the Creole Wild West is my little partner. He respects me like he's my son.
Nowadays, the biggest hurt I ever get is that needle tearing up my finger. And it really be hurtin', but I keep on sewing. Every year I have blood on my outfit, but you just can't help it, man. But I've been out there this year for 46 years, and I hope that it continues to be the way it is.
Q: When did you first hear Mardi Gras Indian songs?
A: I was a little kid at my daddy's practice. See, they didn't practice in the barrooms like they do today. They'd rent a little house for about three or four dollars a month. Each man would put a little money down. They used to have oil lamps around the walls for light. And they'd be on the floor dancing among each other, and they used to have a couple gallons of wine, and they'd be plotting what to do with the other tribes.
Now that practices are in bars, more and more people are starting to come just to watch the Indians. Yes, they're coming closer and closer to it, you see. People used to run from the Indians. Now they're running to them.
Q: Last year you became politically involved, trying to get the Mardi Gras Indians to have a right of way in the streets and to stop what you said was police harassment.
A: I'm glad you mentioned that. Now that the Indian himself has a better relationship with other Indians, you know who's your biggest problem now? The police.
Q: What kind of things happen?
A: Well, at around 5 in the evening, way before time, they'd hose Orleans street, and wet you all up. They'd be right out there on Orleans and Claiborne, pumping that water out like they're crazy. Sirens blowing, children running -- there's little bitty children out there, man. I looked at one of the policemen and called him a so-and-so right to his face. Looking at me like I'm trouble. It's unnecessary. Why mess with me?
Years ago, during the early years, before they built the I-10 overpass, we used to go uptown singing, "We goin' uptown, Two-way Pocky Way" -- and when we'd get to Poydras and Claiborne, we always had problems with the police. They'd form five or six of them across the street with their billies in the air. And they took a chance, because in them days, those boys had guns under their costumes.
Q: But last year you fought your battle in the City Council instead.
A: Like you said, I got politically involved. Then they sent police to escort me.
Q: So did it improve any after the Council passed the ordinance supporting the Mardi Gras Indians?
A: Well, yeah -- and I hope they treat it the same way this year, too.
Q: What's the best thing the city could do to help the Indians?
A: When (Dutch) Morial was mayor, they closed St. Bernard, Claiborne, Orleans -- that's what they should do every year. Close it.
Q: Who are the other big chiefs that you respect the most?
A: Little Walter (of the Creole Wild West) does alright for a youngster. Most of them can't stand up on the floor with me. My brother used to come to my practice before he started masking, and there were all these people dancing and he'd turn to me and say, "When are you going to dance?" And I'd say, "Man, you always come in here telling me when to dance. You don't tell a sister when to shout in church!"
You see, when you're in practice, with that music, and the spirit hits you, it's just like a religion. When the spirit hits you, and you get on that floor, man -- they can't stop you. I'm up there with five or six different chiefs -- I don't dance with nobody but chiefs -- and I dance with every one of them. I wear them all out. And I still be on that floor. And I don't realize how tired I am until I stop, and it looks like my heart is out of my body pumping.
Q: Tell me about "Indian Red." That's your favorite song in the tradition?
A: Now "Indian Red" is a beautiful song. Let me show you something. (Montana gets up and retrieves a painted tambourine from the corner of the room.) See, you hit your drum. (singing) Mah-day two-de fiyo. That's your introduction. Before you sing, you make your introduction: Big chief Yellow Pocahontas/Don't make no bow 'cause I don't know how/From a dump I bust a rump/From Manilla I make a caterpillar climb up a wall and he get to the top and he better not fall. See, you got all kinds of rhyme you put in it.
And then you go (hitting tambourine and singing) "Mah-day two-de fiyo," and then the crowd comes in -- and when my Daddy did it you had women's voices in there. Man, it'll put tears in your eyes. Il yan day, Il yan day/So we are from the nation/The wild, wild creation/Won't you hear me calling/Softly, softly calling/Oh my Indian Red, my Indian Red -- and somebody will be singing: Oh we kill them dead/Because I love to hear you call my Indian Red.
Now it's a song that you use to introduce all your members of your tribe. You get ready to call your flag boy and your spy boy, and you say: "Now take a look at your spy boy." And you point, and it looks like he's coming out of your finger if you're doing it right.
And he'd shout, "Spy boy Yellow Pocahontas!" and he'd get out on the floor and do his number, and then it's: "Because I love to hear you call my Indian Red."
And then I call the flag boy, and I call everybody. And I call the second chief, which is my brother, and I give him the tambourine and he calls me. And after he calls me, he gives me back the tambourine and I wind the song up. Then you start humming it (humming slowly) then you start fast (beating the tambourine) and then the song's over.
I sing it the way my daddy sang it. There's this one chief, every time he sees me, he says, "Oh, you got to change it." How are you going to change something that they were singing before you were born? So I say, "If you want to change something, change the suit you make every year. Make a new suit."
Q: What does the future look like for the Mardi Gras Indians?
A: Just like in my daddy's time, you always got guys running messages back and forth. Guys from uptown that might play deceitful with the guys downtown. And you see another thing that guys do -- a guy masked a couple years with me and I taught him a lot of my things, and now he masks with someone else on Mardi Gras Day. You got a little snitch in there.
But I don't care. They never, ever could get it all out of me. Because as long as I breathe, it's in me. As long as I think, it's in me. They never can say, "We got him now." No such a thing as that.
A few years ago I told a guy who was at a bar that I wasn't going to mask that year. See, everybody is worried about beating Tootie Montana. Maybe if Tootie says he's not masking, maybe they'll come out and mask because they feel I'm not going to be there to be competition. So I put the lie out -- I said, "No, I ain't masking." And he said, "What did you give it up for?" And I said, "I just gave it up." He said, "In other words, you done run out of ideas."
When he said that, I was walking away from him. I walked back and said, "Bro, what did you say?" I said, "Let me tell you something man." Oh that bar was crowded, and I said, "I could draw an outfit for everybody in this bar. As long as I'm alive, I have ideas."
Like I said, you can do to a person what you want, but you can't take his thoughts away from him.