In New Orleans, 'Indian Red' Is The Anthemic Sound Of Tradition

Mar 31, 2019
Originally published on April 4, 2019 3:03 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


For well more than a century, being in New Orleans for Carnival Day and other cultural events has meant at least two things: seeing groups of African-Americans parading in spectacular regalia inspired by Native American motifs, and hearing an anthemic song that brings them together in good times and bad. The first recording of "Indian Red," sometimes called "My Indian Red," dates back to the 1940s, but the song's history goes far deeper.

"Indian Red" has as many variations as the Mardi Gras Indians themselves. Their tradition honors a friendship with Native Americans that some say dates back to slavery, when the two cultures are believed to have exchanged many kindnesses. After Reconstruction, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition became more representative of the African-Americans who take part each year: an expression of self-love and self-pride, with an emphasis on African religious and cultural origins.

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Oliver Thomas, a former city councilman who now hosts a daily radio talk show in New Orleans, remembers following Mardi Gras Indian tribes as a child, each name as splendiferous as the next: The Yellow Pocahontas, the Ninth Ward Hunters, the Golden Eagles, Fi Yi Yi and many more.

"In the Seventh Ward there was a yellow and white outfit — I don't even remember who it was — that was so beautiful, man," Thomas recalls. "I think it was a Mardi Gras that was dreary and the weather was bad. So whoever that Indian was, he brought the sunshine."

The suits are vital. But the power that the Mardi Gras Indians exude when they walk the streets and sing is spiritual, as well — and mysterious. "Indian Red" opens with the phrase "Mighty cooty fiyo!" No self-respecting Mardi Gras Indian will say what that means, but make no mistake — this is a warrior's anthem.

I visited Big Chief Lil Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters in his living room, where he has plumes, satin and feathers on display. Like any good Mardi Gras Indian, he hand-sews his suits. Taylor says he's been parading — except in times of illness — since he was 2 years old. He's 65 this year.

"The first song you would always want to learn is Indian Red — that's the prayer," Taylor says. "You sing as your tribe is beginning to leave, to hit the street. And the whole object of it is to hope that they all come back."

Sounds dire, right? It kind of is: There's plenty of rivalry on the street between Mardi Gras Indian chiefs — and their tribes. "I seen an Indian hit another Indian with a hatchet in his face — hit him right in the center of his forehead with that hatchet," Taylor says. Part of a chief's responsibility, he explains, is to keep the peace.

Big Chief Lil Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters at his home in New Orleans. Taylor gives classes at the nearby Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, teaching children to sew in the tradition.
Gwen Thompkins for NPR

There's a lot less violence now between Mardi Gras Indians, and a lot more trash talk. But tribes are still wary of police: In 2012, the New Orleans Police Department was placed under a federal consent decree brought on by a history of biased policing and civil rights abuses. When relations were poor, the Mardi Gras Indians stood up for themselves, heeding the spirit of a line from "Indian Red": "We won't bow down, not on that ground."

Katy Reckdahl has reported on the situation for more than a decade. "The NOPD was very out of control, and I think that a lot of what was happening was just racism," she argues. "Majority white in mindset, maybe, not majority white in actual demographics. There were black and white police officers that were part of the problem."

Allison Montana — aka Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas — helped bring about peace in our time. Decades ago, Montana (who died in 2005) began urging the tribes to drop their animosities toward each other. He encouraged them to concentrate on other Mardi Gras Indian traditions: sewing, dancing and singing the repertoire right.

But does this old song sound too old today? Cherice Harrison-Nelson is the daughter, and sister of Mardi Gras Indian chiefs, a queen of the tribe Guardians of the Flame and a school teacher. She says she and her family have decided to drop the words "Indian Red" when they sing the song.

"It's not right for us to sing, because we know better. I don't know how many Native Americans would call themselves Indian Red," she says. "Everything else about the song, I love. We sing 'Guarding the flame' [instead], and that's what we teach our children."

Other Mardi Gras Indians will have to decide for themselves. For his part, Lil Charles Taylor — who is preparing for his final year as big chief of the White Cloud Hunters — says he's not changing a word of the song. He's performed at Carnegie Hall, in Paris, at the Smithsonian, and on the National Mall. He's sewn his suits through hurricanes, a hernia, a liver transplant and divorce.

"I enjoyed it the whole time I took part. It was a pleasure and I'll always love it because I'm an Indian myself. But once I retire next year, that will be it. I think I've done my duties," he says.

Taylor's final suit will be peach, the only color he's never worn. He's already sewing.

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(SOUNDBITE OF DONALD HARRISON JR.'S "INDIAN RED")

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

That's jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. with an instrumental version of the song "Indian Red." The first recording of "Indian Red" dates back to the 1940s, but the song is much older than that. For well more than a century in New Orleans on Carnival Day and for other cultural events, groups of African-Americans have been parading in spectacular regalia inspired by Native American motifs. They've sung "Indian Red" for most if not all of that time to bring them together in good times and bad. Gwen Thompkins tells us their story for our series American Anthem.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: The song "Indian Red" has as many variations as the Mardi Gras Indians themselves. Their tradition honors a friendship with Native Americans that some say dates back to slavery, when both sides are believed to have exchanged many kindnesses. But after Reconstruction, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition became more representative of the African-Americans who take part each year - self-love, self-pride with an emphasis on African religious and cultural origins. Oliver Thomas is a former city councilman who now hosts a daily radio talk show in the city. He remembers following Mardi Gras Indian tribes as a child, each name as splendiferous as the next: the Yellow Pocahontas, the Ninth Ward Hunters, the Golden Eagles, Fi Yi Yi and so many more.

OLIVER THOMAS: In the Seventh Ward - I don't even remember who it was. It was a yellow outfit that was so beautiful, man. I think that was a Mardi Gras where it was dreary, and the weather wasn't good. So whoever the Indian was, he brought the sunshine.

THOMPKINS: The suits are vital, but the power that the Mardi Gras Indians exude when they dance and sing on the streets is spiritual as well and mysterious. The song "Indian Red" opens with mighty cooty fiyo, but no self-respecting Mardi Gras Indian will say what that means. And yet, make no mistake. This is a warrior's anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDIAN RED")

CHARLES TAYLOR: (Singing) Mighty cooty fiyo, Indian Red, Indian Red. Oh, we all are Indians, Indians. We're Indians of a nation, the whole wild creation. Oh, we won't bow down. Oh, we won't bow down not on that ground, that dirty ground because I love to hear you call, my Indian Red.

THOMPKINS: That's Big Chief Lil Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters. He's singing the first verse of "Indian Red" in his living room, where he has gorgeous plumes, satin and feathers on display. Like any good Mardi Gras Indian, he hand-sews his suits. Taylor says he's been parading, except in times of illness, since he was 2 years old. He's 65 this year.

TAYLOR: The first song you will always want to learn is "Indian Red." That's the prayer. And before you sing "Indian Red," you respect the Lord. You say the Lord's Prayer.

THOMPKINS: Wow. And so what are you praying for?

TAYLOR: You're praying for - that you're leaving all. But you were classified from your reservation, you know? And you sing it and your tribe beginning to leave to hit the street. And the whole object of it's the hope that they all come back.

THOMPKINS: Sounds dire, right? It kind of is. There's plenty of rivalry on the street between opposing Mardi Gras Indian groups. Taylor says the chief's responsibility is to keep the peace.

TAYLOR: I've seen an Indian take and hit another Indian with a hatchet in his face - hit him right in the center of his forehead with a hatchet.

THOMPKINS: There's a lot less violence now between Mardi Gras Indians and a lot more trash talk. But tribes remain wary of police. In 2012, the New Orleans Police Department was placed under a federal consent decree brought on by a history of biased policing and civil rights abuses. When relations with police were poor, the Mardi Gras Indians stood up for themselves, heeding the spirit of the "Indian Red" line, we won't bow down, not on that ground. Katy Reckdahl has reported on the situation for more than a decade.

KATY RECKDAHL: The NOPD was very out of control. And I think that a lot of what was happening was just pure racism - majority white mindset, maybe, not majority white in actual demographics. There were both black and white police officers that were part of the problem.

THOMPKINS: Allison Montana aka Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas helped bring about peace in our time. Decades ago, Montana began urging Mardi Gras Indian tribes to drop their animosities toward each other. He encouraged them to concentrate on other Mardi Gras Indian traditions - sewing, dancing and singing the repertoire right. Here he is in 1994, talking with New Orleans author Michael Tisserand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLISON MONTANA: So you hit your drum. Mighty cooty fiyo. I put in the introduction. Big Chief, Yellow Pocahontas, don’t make no bow ’cause I don’t know how. From a dump, I bust a rump. And from Manila, I make a caterpillar climb up a wall to get to the top. And he better not fall. You see; you got all kind of rhymes you put. Then you go, mighty cooty fiyo. In my daddy's time, when the women - get them women voice in there. Oh, it puts tears in your eyes, man.

THOMPKINS: Chief Tootie Montana died in 2005, but he was right. The song does have an unusual power when women sing it. Here are the Young Guardians of the Flame singing "Indian Red."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDIAN RED")

YOUNG GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME: (Singing) Here comes my big chief, big chief, big chief from the nation, the whole wild creation. He won't bow down. He won't bow down, not on that ground, not on that ground. You know I love to hear you call my Indian Red. Oh, my Indian...

THOMPKINS: But does this old song sound too old? Harrison-Nelson is the daughter, mother and sister of Mardi Gras Indian chiefs. And she's a queen of the original Guardians of the Flame. She's also a schoolteacher. Her family have decided to drop the term Indian Red.

CHERICE HARRISON-NELSON: They can't sing it anymore. It's not right for us to sing. We know better. I don't know how many Native Americans would call themselves Indian Red. I just don't. Everything else about the song, I love. So we sing, guarding the flame, oh, how we love being charged with guarding the flame. And that's what we teach our children.

THOMPKINS: Lil Charles Taylor says he's not changing a word of the song, but other Mardi Gras Indians will have to decide for themselves. Taylor has had a brilliant run as big chief of the White Cloud Hunters. He's performed at Carnegie Hall, in Paris, at the Smithsonian and on the National Mall. He's sewn his suits through hurricanes, a hernia, a liver transplant and divorce.

TAYLOR: I enjoyed it the whole time that I took part. It was a pleasant - and I'll always love it 'cause, you know, I'm an Indian myself. But other than come back at it once I retire next year, that's going to be it. I think I've done my due desire, had my times, really.

THOMPKINS: Taylor's last suit will be peach - the only color he's never worn. He's already sewing. The tips of his fingers have needle holes in them.

For NPR News, I'm Gwen Thompkins in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Chief Lil Charles of the White Cloud Hunters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.