Twenty years ago, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes reluctantly became a skeleton.
He was coaxed into it by Albert Morris, a rail-thin charmer from the Treme neighborhood. “Al rode up on me on his bicycle and asked if I’d ever thought of masking skeleton,” Barnes said. “I told him, ‘No, indeed.’ ”
Barnes, 55, an Arkansas-born musician who moved to the city in the 1990s, had debated masking as a Mardi Gras Indian, because he was close friends with Donald Harrison Sr., big chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe.
By the late 1990s, however, the skeleton tradition had nearly died out. It wasn’t even on Barnes’ radar. Soon, it would become a chief passion for Barnes, who on Tuesday will mark two big anniversaries: his 20th, and his gang’s 200th.
On Mardi Gras morning in 1999, Barnes first donned a big papier-mâché skull and hit the streets as second chief to the persuasive Morris, the last remaining member of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang.
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Two centuries of bonemen
Years ago, Morris told Barnes about the bone gang’s origins, in 1819.
“The story goes that the merchant marine brought the tradition into the city and that he started masking in what we now call Treme, which was on the north side of what was considered the city then — basically the French Quarter,” Barnes said.
The merchant marine’s origins are unknown. But during that period, the city took in throngs of people from Haiti, Cuba, and other parts of the United States. So each tribe member has his own theory.
“I believe that image traveled out of the Caribbean to the port city of New Orleans,” Ronald Lewis said. Zohar Israel sees both Caribbean and African roots. During Barnes’ recent travels to Africa, he saw skeletonlike spirits and voodoo markets. That gave him a greater sense of the tradition’s African roots and supplied him with an animal skull that he’s incorporated into this year’s mask.
What’s clear is that, for generations, skeletons and Indians both roamed the streets of African-American communities on Mardi Gras Day, part of community-masking customs that centered more on neighborhoods than on the grand pageantry of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue, where black citizens weren’t welcome.
In archival research, jazz historian John McCusker has found references to skeletons dating back to 1875. On February 10, 1875, a Times-Picayune article referred to a Mardi Gras fight involving skeletons. In 1902, another local paper, the Times-Democrat, wrote about Mardi Gras in the 6th and 7th wards and described African-American revelers including “youngsters dressed up like skeletons” who packed North Claiborne Avenue and North Robertson and Annette streets.
When Morris learned the tradition from his own big chief, Big Arthur Regis, he was taught to pass it along. He felt proud that he’d risen to the challenge, he said not long before he died in 2011. “I feel a certain peace, knowing that North Side will live on,” he said.
New members, new neighbors
With each new North Side member came a new history.
Lewis, 67, brought memories of bonemen who “ran around with those bloody bones” from childhood visits to the 6th Ward on Mardi Gras.
A self-made historian who runs the House of Dance & Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward, Lewis said he felt a sense of clout when he roamed the streets on Mardi Gras morning, waking up neighbors.
“You know why I feel powerful?” Lewis said. “Because I’m part of history.”
Another new skeleton, filmmaker Royce Osborn, also remembered skeletons, from a childhood spent in the 7th Ward, and he arrived with a papier-mâché skull made for him by a former skeleton, Big Chief Tootie Montana, who by then was being touted as “the prettiest” Indian in town.
In 2003, Osborn’s PBS documentary, “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” prompted a wave of new interest in Indians and some then-waning black Carnival traditions, including skeletons and baby dolls.
Skeleton Michael Crutcher, 49, remembers seeing a resurgence after Osborn’s documentary aired. New baby dolls hit the street, WWOZ broadcast live from Treme, and the North Side Skull and Bone Gang woke up the neighborhood with a gang that had grown to about a half-dozen.
During that time, Barnes worked with Morris to augment the tradition with African drummers, a mystical skeleton stilt-walker and skeleton-specific songs like “Too Late” and “Ashes to Ashes.” He also recruited children to mask skeleton, so the tradition could be carried into the next generation.
In 2010, with Morris ailing, Barnes moved into the chief’s position and put Israel, 66, in the second chief’s position, in charge of moving everyone into action by about 4:30 a.m.
“We never let daylight catch us without being on the street,” Israel said. “That’s the rules.”
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Topped with massive paper skulls or frightening headpieces made of bone, the North Side gang tromps through the streets of old Treme and the 7th Ward, calling out their catch phrase, “You Next!” alternated with an occasional “The End is Near!”
As they walk, they call on the spirits of New Orleans and Africa, Israel said. “We’re death angels, warning people before they begin their big day — ‘If you do too much of what you’re out there doing, you’re going to come see us.’”
The first blocks can seem solitary, said Crutcher, who gains courage with a few shots of rum. Before long, he gets caught up in the momentum, as faces begin to peep out of windows and doors crack open, revealing “families with kids in pajamas, hiding behind a housecoat.”
Yet in recent years, the walk has changed, as predominantly black blocks of Treme and the 7th Ward have shifted to become predominantly white.
“Used to be, when we came through Treme, all the black kids knew who we were — someone had warned them about us,” Israel said. “The people now, they’re good people, but they’re drinking their coffee, and they have their dog with them at the door. They don’t seem to feel in a deep way what the bone gang is all about.”
That visceral effect is particularly important with skeletons, which aren’t visually fantastic like the baby dolls or Indians, Crutcher said. In recent years, he’s seen revelers outside of the tradition create similar skeleton costumes.
“They look good, with their shiny, perfect papier-mâché heads and their clothes painted so exactly that you can see every metatarsal and metacarpal,” he said. “But that’s not really what the tradition’s about.”
Morris had a degree in art, so he could have crafted bonemen outfits in exquisite detail or used material much more elaborate than baling wire, flour, water, paper and housepaint, Barnes said. But he didn’t.
“Al stuck with tradition,” Barnes said.
For every aspect of his suit, Morris chose inexpensive, practical applications, Crutcher said.
“Al painted his bones on the fuzzy side of a sweatshirt. That was so he could wear the sweatshirt during the year and then turn it inside-out on Mardi Gras, when he wanted to be a skeleton,” Crutcher said. “He taught us that this tradition is not fancy. It’s certainly not about being the prettiest.”
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