ED GORDON, host:
Today, anyone can celebrate Mardi Gras. But 300 years ago when slaves were brought to New Orleans, they weren't allowed to participate. The elaborate celebration proved difficult to resist, and blacks found a way around the racist laws by masquerading as Native Indians. The tradition of the Mardi Gras Indian continues to this day.
We spoke with Cherice Harrison-Nelson and her brother Donald. They say in spite of trying to recover from Katrina, they'll still salute this historic tradition. Again, here's NPR's Farai Chideya.
FARIA CHIDEYA reporting:
Tell us what the Mardi Gras Indian celebration is and what does it mean to you now?
Ms. CHERICE HARRISON-NELSON (Council Queen, Guardians of the Flame): Well, I won't be masking this year, but what I will be doing is, I'm the curator of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame; and it's a ceremony that occurs annually to honor Mardi Gras Indians for their contributions to our city and to our community.
This year, we are going the ceremony in conjunction with Mardi Gras, and we're honoring Cyril(ph) Green. And he's a Mardi Gras Indian who is wheelchair bound. And we want to honor is tenacity in masking and continuing this tradition even in the aftermath of all the devastation that has occurred in our city. And I think that is my role for this year, because I have been too traumatized to actually make a suit. And in addition to that, my inventory was destroyed by the flooding that occurred after the hurricane.
CHIDEYA: You know, I was able to see some the amazing suits that you make at an exhibit called Carnival, which will be traveling around the country. Beautiful, elaborate, beaded feathered costumes. Donald where did this tradition start?
Mr. DONALD HARRISON JR. (Big Chief, Congo Nation): We know that in New Orleans, Congo Square was a place where Africans were allowed to congregate on Sundays. And they would congregate according to tribe. They would congregate in a circle. And you would have drummers and singers on the outside, and usually two dancers or more inside the circle. So root music of New Orleans--you know, I'm a jazz musician, so I've been able to study and research how you can look at someone like Jelly Roll Martin. He has done songs by the Mardi Gras Indians. And if you look at songs like Ico, Ico, a lot of songs from New Orleans, you will find that the Mardi Gras Indian music is the root of that style.
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CHIDEYA: Donald, where did the concept of dressing up as Indians or costuming in the form of Indians come from? And are Indian tribes upset that you're using the word Indian?
Mr. HARRISON: The tradition of masking as Indians is something that we really don't know the answer to, because it was done a long time ago before there were records that were held. But there are theories Congo Square was originally a place for the Indians or Native Americans to gather before the Africans got there. So they mixed with each other.
There's another theory that they enslaved people who were taken in by Native Americans when they escaped slavery. Also the theory that the Wild West came to town and people of African descent were taken aback by the symmetry of their style of being in the Indians and starting doing it too.
And to answer your other question about whether Native Americans are angry about it, I think some Native Americans may be angry about it. But this year I have taken that and said, you know what, I am going to rename my group. So we are an African American tribe of New Orleans.
CHIDEYA: Now, Cherice, it sounds like you've got a very hierarchal organization, where traditions and roles are passed down within the family. What does it mean to you to know that you are part of a legacy that dates through your father's line back in history?
Ms. HARRISON-NELSON: I am certainly at least a third generation Mardi Gras Indian, and I feel that this particular tradition is a way to strengthen family bonds, as well as it's something that defines you as an individual, especially as a person of African descent. My father always recognized the West African retention of the Mardi Gras Indian in the education system.
Most books start with the enslavement of Africans in America. I don't want that to be the way I define myself. And I am so thankful that my father did not allow that to be the way that we defined ourselves. And he made sure that we were rooted in the fact that we were of African descent. Our history did not begin when we were brought over here as a testament in humanity to other men.
CHIDEYA: So, Donald, tell us what is the future. What lies ahead for the Mardi Gras Indians?
Mr. HARRISON: I am going to rebuild and keep the tradition going, because this is one way to make the country, and from my estimation, the world a better place. And I play with a lot of great jazz musicians. One was Art Blakey, and he used always say, whatever you do, just light your candle from wherever you are and hope that someone will see it, and you will light the way for them. So that's why I do it.
CHIDEYA: Donald Harrison, Jr. is big chief of the Congo Nation, and Cherice Harrison-Nelson is council queen, Guardians of the Flame, with the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. HARRISON: Thank you.
Ms. HARRISON-NELSON: You're quite welcome.
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GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.
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GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. And if you'd like to comment, call us at 202-408-3330; that's 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.
I'm Ed Gordon, this is NEWS AND NOTES.
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