Treme Tuesday: "Spy...Flag...Big Chief"

Mardi Gras Indian, photo by Kerry Maloney

One of the main story lines in Treme examines the subculture that are the New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indians. Albert Lambreaux (played by Clarke Peters) is a "Big Chief" of an Indian tribe, the Guardians of the Flame.

There are a number of theories as to why African-Americans in New Orleans began to mask as Indians, ranging from honoring Native American traditions to the hopes that acting like them would enable blacks to "pass." While the latter may have been a motivation for early Indian tribes, the tradition has such deep roots in the black communities of New Orleans that now it's "a black thing" as the t-shirts in Underground Atlanta proclaim.

Mardi Gras Indian, "Super Sunday" 2009, photo by Julia Pretus

Indian tribes are neighborhood groups. They often refer to themselves as "gangs." Every year their costumes would become more fanciful and elaborate, culminating in beautiful outfits worn over the last few decades. To paraphrase the song, every year, at Carnival time, the Indians make a new suit. It's considered bad form to wear last year's costume; in fact, many Indians would strip the feathers and beads from their suits, then burn the rest. In recent years, however, many Indians wear their older suits for corporate gatherings, conventions, and other tourism events in the city. This helps them offset the cost of the "new suit," which can set them back over $5,000 each!

Young Mardi Gras Indian, "Super Sunday" 2009, photo by Julia Pretus

Masking is a family event for many tribes. While their history is spotted with incidents of violence, today's Indians focus less on drinking and fighting and more on community.

Mardi Gras Indian, photo by Kerry Maloney

The tribes traditionally come out for Carnival Day, then re-appear for "Super Sunday," the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day (March 19th). On Mardi Gras, downtown and uptown tribes alike would make their way to the neighborhoods around the turning basin of the New Basin Canal, on the uptown side of Canal Street, where they would parade and dance. Pride in their costumes, neighborhoods, and tribes would often lead to violence, hence references to the "battlefield."

The Guardians of the Flame from HBO's Treme.

In the show, The Guardians of the Flame emerge from Poke's Bar in the Treme on Super Sunday. The tribe did not mask for Carnival, 2006, because Big Chief Albert was incarcerated at Central Lockup. Albert and his gang came out in classic style, with three costumed Indians: Spy Boy, Flag Boy, and Big Chief.

When marching through the streets, the Spy Boy would run two-three blocks ahead of the main group, literally spying for other Indians. The Spy Boy stays in visual contact with the Flag Boy, who carries the tribe's banner. In an interview, the late Big Chief "Tootie" Montana (whose daughter is a member of the Treme cast) explains that Spy Boys used to be lightly costumed so they could do their jobs in stealth. Nowadays, however, a tribe's Spy Boy will often be elaborately costumed and carry a stick. Only a Chief would be permitted to carry a stick in earlier times.

Big Chief Albert Lambreaux of the Guardians of the Flame from HBO's Treme.

Spy...Flag...Big Chief
...the Guardians of the Flame head out on Super Sunday. The fictional tribe gets its name from the tribe of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. His son, Donald, Jr., is an accomplished musician and Chief of the Congo Nation. Donald Jr. appeared in the pilot, playing with Delmond Lambreaux. The Lambreauxs are loosely based on the Harrisons. The Spy Boy of the fictional tribe is played by Otto DeJean, who is Big Chief of the 7th Ward Hard Head Hunters.

Mardi Gras Indian "Queen," on "Super Sunday" 2009, photo by Julia Pretus

Indian tribes usually have a "Queen." It's not surprising, since the women pitch in with all that sewing and often want to dress up.

Missing from the fictional Super Sunday march is the "Wild Man." The Wild Man wears a horned hat and, well, acts, wild. His job during the march is to clear the crowd in advance of the Indians and their Big Chief. The horned hat helps push people back in areas where crowds form. The Guardians of the Flame lost their Wild Man, Jesse, in the storm. A memorial service for Wild Man Jesse was held in Episode 3, which was attended by several real-life Big Chiefs and other Indian personalities. They chanted and sang "Indian Red," described by Dr. John as "their most sacred of songs."

The show depicts a peaceful meeting of two tribes, the Guardians of the Flame and the Congo Nation. The Spy Boys spot each other first, approach each other, strutting and dancing. The Flag Boys join the dance as they come up,finally joined by the Big Chiefs (Lambreaux and real-life Chief Donald Harrison, Jr.). These encounters could turn violent, as one tribe might demand that the other bow or kneel to them, acknowledging that their costumes and/or dancing was better. Indian pride being it is, this is where the phrase "won't bow down, don't know how" originates. The meeting of the Guardians of the Flame and the Congo Nation is non-violent, the Big Chiefs offering, as Delmond Lambreaux puts it, "respect for respect."

The two tribes pass each other, and the Guardians of the Flame encounter a white couple who are out photographing the Indians. They refer to Big Chief Lambreaux as "pretty," which is the highest praise one can give an Indian. As the couple shoots photos of Albert and his gang, several NOPD cars pull up. The history of violence among the tribes has always caused rocky relations between the Indians and the cops. After Super Sunday of 2005, a public hearing in the City Council chamber was held to work out the problems. "Chief of Chiefs" Tootie Montana literally died at the podium, suffering a massive heart attack as he made his case for the conflicts to cease. The show pays tribute to Big Chief Tootie, not only by having his son, Darryl (who is Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters) make a guest appearance, but by having NOPD come out to Pokes prior to the post-storm Super Sunday to (hopefully) work out a plan with Albert.

The Indians are a wonderful part of Treme and the overall culture of the city. The series does a great job integrating them into the overall fabric.