In daily life, David Peters Montana is a socially conscious thinker and a dapper dresser, usually topped with a hat, clad in leather shoes.
Fans of New Orleans culture know Montana, 65, as a Mardi Gras Indian big chief who started masking at age 9 with his sister, Toki, and now leads his own tribe, Washitaw Nation.
But this Monday -- St. Joseph’s Night, when Indians move through their neighborhoods in their feathers -- Montana will be wearing street clothes as he plays tambourine with his tribe in the heart of the 7th Ward.
The reason: Rising costs of living in his hometown have forced him, like others who mask Indian, to choose between the costly, time-consuming tradition of sewing a new suit for Mardi Gras and simple necessities of life, like rent and electricity.
Montana comes from a family considered Indian royalty. His famous dad, carpenter Edward Montana, served as second chief in the Yellow Pocahontas tribe and created suits that rivaled those of Tootie Montana, Edward’s younger brother.
In 1994, his father, struck with lung cancer, was left unable to speak. Still, he handed down the tradition silently. “I read his eyes,” Montana said. “He said, ‘Don’t let my work go in vain.’ ”
But in recent years, Montana has found it much harder to live up to his father’s directive. According to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the proportion of renters paying 30 or 50 percent of their income toward rent is higher in New Orleans than in big-ticket cities like New York or San Francisco. Indians, musicians and other cultural leaders in New Orleans have been hit hard, moving farther from the center of New Orleans in search of affordable housing.
Montana's rent, $400 when Hurricane Katrina hit, doubled to $800; utilities rose exponentially. A few years ago, a neighbor created a GoFundMe campaign to help him get caught up and stay in his apartment off Bayou Road in the 7th Ward, but the bills began mounting again.
It came as a relief late last year when his application was accepted for an affordable apartment in the Bell Artspace Campus, a 79-unit complex in the city’s 6th Ward made up of three rehabbed school buildings set on grounds that make up nearly two full city blocks. But financial pressures had reached a breaking point. After bills, nothing remained for this year's beads and feathers.
Those who made New Orleans famous for its culture — its Indians, musicians and social-aid-and-pleasure-club members — simply aren't making enough money to cover costs of living. It's "discouraging and heart-wrenching," said bass drummer Ellis Joseph, who leads the Free Agents Brass Band and is a music instructor at a public school, but was saddled with student loans and rent that just rose by another $100.
Joseph will move into an apartment at Bell next month, but a long list of bandmates and musical friends are now on Bell's waiting list, he said. One musician had moved into a sketchy area, because it was affordable, only to dodge bullets when he gets home from gigs, Joseph said. Another was forced out by a landlord turning the rental into an Airbnb, leaving him sleeping on a family couch in eastern New Orleans, far from where his gigs are.
Even as Montana has struggled financially, he still holds the spotlight. Several years ago, he led the legendary Yellow Pocahontas tribe on Fat Tuesday for his cousin Darryl Montana, Tootie’s son. Then in 2012, he started the Washitaw Nation. He’s lectured about Indian culture at Tulane University.
These days, he and longtime girlfriend Sandra Smith are at home in a sunny, brick-walled Bell apartment. Montana knows the campus well, having attended school there, at the former Andrew J. Bell Junior High, before moving on to Joseph S. Clark High School.
He ended up dropping out of Clark, to the consternation of his mother, who made him accompany her to her job at Boudreaux’s Jewelry on Baronne Street. He worked there as a janitor until he brought some of his Indian beadwork to the office, impressing her boss with the intricacy of the work. That was the start of his life’s profession, as he learned how to work with precious metals and make jewelry.
Despite taking this year off, Montana believes that better times are ahead. The move to Bell cut his rent-utility bills by a quarter, maybe even a half. And the stable rent, like the regular health care he receives through the Musicians’ Clinic, sets his mind at ease. “I can’t think right when I’m stressed,” he said. “But this calm allows me to sew.”