Mardi Gras Indian tribe prepares for Fat Tuesday


by Bill Capo / Eyewitness News

Posted on March 7, 2011 at 10:44 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 3 at 12:20 PM

NEW ORLEANS - The ceremony at St. Louis Cemetery Number Three started somber and solemn, as members of the Guardians of the Flame tribe gathered near the grave of their founder, Big Chief Donald Harrison. But it didn't take long for the spirit, maybe his spirit,  to seize them.

"As a third generation Mardi Gras Indian, I realized that I inherited something quite special, in that we are responsible for carrying it on. My father gave us a charge to continue masking in a traditional Uptown style," said Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson.

Donald Harrison's daughter Cherice  points out Indian traditions in the African American community could pre-date the Mardi Gras, and the civil war.

But now the suits the Guardians of the Flame wear are designed to be more than just pretty.

"My father told us that if you were masking, and you just wanted to be pretty, you were not a Guardian of the Flame. To be a Guardian of the Flame, you had to engage in social commentary."

So her home in Musicians' Village was a busy place today, packed with family members and friends, and lots of sewing as they rushed to complete the suits to be worn by tribe members as young as three.
Cherice is passing on the traditions.

"You must guard that flame. To whom must is given, much is expected. We expect a lot of you. We expect you to do well in school, we expect you to read."

Cherise's son Brian, who is following in his grandfather's steps as Big Chief, is home from college in Los Angeles, showing part of his master's thesis project, a film about Mardi Gras Indians titled 'Keepers of the Flame' and featuring actor Harold Sylvester, plus real Indian tribe members.

"My teachers at USC say 'wow, we've never heard a film score like this before,' because it is all Mardi Gras Indian music, the entire score," said Brian Nelson, the project's Writer and Director.

Family friend Janet Cunningham comes in from Los Angeles on her Mardi Gras vacation each year, and helps sew the suits.

"What a wonderful thing this is to have an opportunity to participate in," said Janet. "I feel I can bridge my experiences as an African American with those of  my ancestral homeland, and at the same time pay homage to my father's memory," Cherice Nelson said.

The song Brian is singing right now is called Sew, Sew, Sew. They've got to leave right now because that's what they've got a lot more of to do, sewing to finish the suits that they're going to wear tomorrow.

Their day starts very early, and they'll be wearing the suits they spent so long making, and we'll be with them.