Tahj Williams was just 9 when she found her calling.
It was 2008 and she saw another child “masking Indian” in her uncle's tribe, the Wild Magnolias. She remembers being entranced by the miniature headdress, the beadwork, the feathers and the chants — all traditions she had thought were only for adults, and mostly men.
She was hooked. “I said, 'Uncle, can I mask, too?' ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, baby, we can start you tomorrow.' ”
Over the years, Williams, now 19, worked her way up the ranks to secure a coveted spot as Second Queen in the Golden Eagles tribe led by the eminent Uptown big chief Monk Boudreaux.
As Mardi Gras Indians paraded Uptown on Sunday, known as Super Sunday, she celebrated her second year in that role by showing off a suit unlike others seen near A.L. Davis Park: a three-piece outfit involving a pencil skirt, a V-neck beaded top and a blanket-like shawl that wrapped over her shoulders.
It was what she called a “mix of old school and new school,” with beadwork symbolizing African queens praying and meditating, and moccasins with the words “Queen Tahj” adorning the back.
Williams, a Tulane University student pursuing a double major in cybersecurity and homeland security, now sees herself as a role model for younger maskers. That’s in part because she’s got one foot pursuing upward mobility and the other rooted firmly in a culture her family has honored for generations.
She hopes to inspire by using suit designs that depart from the looks worn by those who came before her, so that younger people thinking about carrying on Mardi Gras Indian customs have fresh looks to aspire to.
“The reason why I make suits so different is I look at myself as one of the leaders of the younger generation,” Williams said. “I make my suits the way I do to show that the young generation is here, and we are ready to lead.”
Part of that message, she said, is to show that young Mardi Gras Indian women are strong and as deserving of attention as the men in the tribe.
“The queen is often the afterthought,” Williams said. “I want to show how we’re the backbone without stepping on men’s toes, so I showed it through the beadwork and the suits.”
On Sunday, Williams joined dozens of other Indians who had sacrificed countless weekends and acquired signature calluses to finish their fantastical creations of reds, yellows, purples and bright blues. For many, whole paychecks went to the materials needed to complete the suits: thousands of tiny beads, feathers, straw, silk and more.
All the work is done for just a few appearances a year, like Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day or Super Sunday, when the various tribes meet on the streets, exchanging chants and passing signals through a hierarchy that runs from spy boy to chief, with the flag boy, the wild man and often the queen in the middle.
Williams’ tribe, the Golden Eagles, was among several represented Sunday by “maskers” who danced and sang as they met, with onlookers cheering and taking photographs as vendors sold crawfish nachos, barbecue rib sandwiches, turkey necks, mixed drinks and sno-balls.
“Let’s go get ’em!” some chanted as others hit tambourines or raised spears and bows in the air.
Before the parade started, Williams paused for photographs with 57-year-old Dow Michael Edwards, a lawyer by trade and spy boy for the Mohawk Hunters. They stood inside A.L. Davis Park, which featured two stages for music and dance lessons, as well as bounce houses and a miniature merry-go-round.
Pointing to Williams’ suit, which featured black fur trim and beadwork of light blue, pink and purple that contrasted with the bright reds and dark blacks used to depict the queens, Edwards told onlookers that her suit was “magical.”
In exchange, she exclaimed over his: a massive, intricate assembly of a red, yellow and white feathered headdress, an alligator vest and a skirt with beadwork featuring Shango, an African spirit of thunder and dance, thought to be the ruler of animals in the ancient jungle.
As they admired each other’s handiwork, Edwards also gave a short history lesson on Louisiana’s "code noir," which designated Sundays as a day off work for slaves, and a later city ordinance that allowed his ancestors to gather at Congo Square.
It was there that slaves would dance, sing and otherwise carry on traditions dating back to Africa. Each year the Mardi Gras Indians gather both to celebrate their ancestors and to pay homage to those Native Americans who sometimes helped shelter them.
Edwards said he admires members of the next generation, like Williams, who understand the importance of creating suits, masking and singing chants.
“This culture is over 300 years old,” he said. “Our ancestors fought very hard to preserve the African culture, so it's of utmost importance for us to carry on the traditions.”
Williams said that after Sunday, she expects to get emails and calls from children and teenagers hoping to be mentored, which happens every time she creates a new suit and which inspires her to continue.
“At first I used to worry my generation was not interested,” she said, “but I think when I started to step out and do different styles, the suits started to grab attention. Now I think my generation is ready to step up and take on some leadership roles and be the next cultural bearers.”