Just because “Lil” Walter Cook’s gig was rained out Saturday didn’t mean Jazz Fest was over for him.
He grabbed his ticket and a tambourine and headed for the Fair Grounds, ready to jump in wherever he was needed.
Cook, big chief of the Creole Wild West tribe, had been booked on the Jazz & Heritage Stage, for a set billed as a “Gathering of the Chiefs: Lil Walter Cook and the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians with Family and Friends.”
But Saturday morning, the heavens opened, dumping nearly 2 inches of rain onto New Orleans, according to the National Weather Service’s Slidell office. The Jazz & Heritage Festival staff delayed the day’s opening by 90 minutes and canceled the earliest acts, including Cook.
Still, Cook, 59, headed to Mid-City anyway, as he’s done every year for a half-century. When Jazz Fest first began in Congo Square, Cook, then in primary school, paraded through the French Quarter with other Indians. By age 13, he had become big chief of the Creole Wild West, leading 42 Indians into the streets on his first Mardi Gras appearance.
Saturday was meant to be a special day, when he took the stage with a group of other esteemed chiefs, to mark his retirement from "masking Indian."
First, he had planned to introduce Jazz Fest audiences to his heirs apparent: the tribe’s newest queen, his niece Melissa “Missy” Bean-Tanner, 34, and its youngest chief, his nephew Kendell Cook Jr., who is 13.
Some people were skeptical, because Cook has threatened to retire “about three or four times before,” he said.
But with his niece and nephew taking up the tradition, Cook is convinced that he can retire this time. “I couldn’t stop until I had left this in the hands of a family member,” he said.
For Mardi Gras this year, the big chief and his niece dressed in matching apricot-colored suits made of custom-dyed ostrich plumes and fluffy marabou feathers. Bean-Tanner blended two dyes to come up with the hue they used, using a formula so secret that she wouldn’t even reveal it to her uncle.
“I wanted a color no one else had ever used,” she said. “I wanted us to look like no one else.”
The suits also carry Cook’s signature use of novel materials — cloth roses, bows, ribbons, ruffles. He also sews some beads into flat patches in what’s known as an “uptown” sewing style. He sews others into the three-dimensional shapes that are typically associated with 7th Ward Indian tribes.
No other Indian combines the two styles like this. But Cook can’t really explain his vision for it. He just sees things differently, he said: “I’m a very unique person.”
He dedicated his apricot suit to his mother, Sadie Cook, 85, who runs Sadie’s Beauty Salon on Jackson Avenue by day and spends her off hours weighing in on all things Indian. “She’s always been with me on this,” Cook said of his mother.
Her grandmother calls the shots when it comes to Indian-suit design, Bean-Tanner said: “I call her the overseer. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t like that. Change that. Put that there. Put this there.’ ”
Cook’s father, Walter Cook Sr., was a co-founder of the Wild Magnolias tribe, and his older brother Norman Cook also masked. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Cook, is believed to have been a member of a tribe called the 101 Mardi Gras Indians. On his mother’s side, his grandmother was American Indian, from the Choctaw tribe.
Now, the fourth generation of Cooks is carrying on that heritage, through the Creole Wild West tribe. On Mardi Gras morning, Cook saw his niece in her apricot suit and broke down in tears.
“I thought I was good-looking,” he said. “But when I saw her, I saw another sort of beauty. I saw her through me and my tradition, just like my father saw me through himself and his tradition.”