Building A Mardi Gras Chief

Like a painter who explores specific motifs through a series of works, Chief Drew, in designing his son’s electric pink Mardi Gras 2000 suit, elaborated on the themes portrayed in his own suit. For the front apron, he’d originally planned a traditional representation of John the Baptist, a beaded tableau featuring a feathered John the Baptist with war paint and crying eyes. A pale blue dove hovers against the background of a royal blue sun. The tears and dove relate to the Book of John. “When our Lord Christ Jesus came into the Jordan River ,” explains Chief Drew, “John the Baptist told him: ‘Who am I to baptize thee who’s so pure?’ ” 
The Four Horses of the Apocalypse, from the Book of Revelation, emblazon the bottom of the tableau. The black horse, says Chief Drew, represents “destruction.” “He’s the one that’s riding right now, ’cause there’s so much violence in the world.”  The Biblical motif continues on the back apron. There are two arms coming together in the shape of a “v”; around the wrists is a chain with broken links at either end. The hands join together at the top of the patch, clasping a golden bolt of lightning. Between the arms is a pyramid with an all-seeing eye. The underlying theme—symbolized by the pyramid, lightning bolt and severed chain—is slavery. In Egypt , relates Chief Drew, “our Lord and Savior freed the slaves, fast and swift.” At the top, spelled out in green crystals, are “Zulu” and “Y2K”. Across the bottom, on either side  of the pyramid, are “40 acres” and “a mule”—a reference to what slaves in America were supposed to receive upon emancipation. But, says Chief Drew, referring to Afrocentric people, “We have not received our 40 acres and a mule yet.”
Considering that most Mardi Gras Indians make their suits with help from friends and family, the fact that Chief Drew single-handedly made Mardi Gras 2000 suits for both himself and his son is no mean feat. What’s more, the workaholic chief beaded patches for other members of his gang and stitched together every one of The Wild Tremé suits—nine in all, including his own and his son’s. The pieces for three of them—worn by his sister Mildred Collar, her daughter and her husband—were shipped to Los Angeles from New Orleans. After Chief Drew, a stickler for aesthetic perfection, completed the suits, he sent them back to New Orleans. Then there were seven teal-blue outfits—accentuated with sequins, beadwork and ivory-colored pearls—for the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners. Chief Drew made them in his spare time.
His prolific output is all the more remarkable considering the ailments that dogged him along the way. In late 1998, doctors removed his left breast, which had become cancerous. Then, as Mardi Gras 2000 was approaching, his left knee started acting up. Shortly after he arrived in New Orleans , it became so inflamed that he wound up having to go to the VA hospital. If it was up to the doctors, Chief Drew would never have set foot on the Zulu parade route. “You gotta call this parade off,” he was told. “Ain’t no way you gonna make that.” But Chief Drew had come too far and sacrificed too much. He was determined to roll with Zulu, pass the torch to his son and experience one last time the high that goes with leading a gang on Carnival Day. As it turned out, arrangements were made for him to ride in a convertible. But a certain mixture of pride and adrenaline kept the pretty chief out of the car, at least on the section of the route along Jackson Ave. When he “opened up,” spreading his arms to reveal the insides of his cuffs, the crowd oohed and ahed. An hour or so later, with Chief Drew now perched atop the back seat of the convertible, The Wild Tremé and the second liners arrived at the Gallier Hall reviewing stand. Chief Drew’s cousin Oliver Thomas, a city councilman, approached the convertible, microphone in hand, and offered a rousing tribute, calling Chief Drew “the best 'Injun' ever in the history of the city of New Orleans.”
Thomas then passed the microphone to Chief Drew, who offered a dedication to his late uncle Teddy, whose words he recalled in a subsequent interview: “If you gonna be second linin’, be the best. If you gonna be Indian, be the best. Whatever you do in life, son—you be the best. Don’t go half way, because this is not a halfway house. If you can’t go all the way, then you leave that alone and try something else.” 


Going into Mardi Gras 2000, The Wild Tremé wasn’t exactly a household name in Mardi Gras Indian circles. But after Chief Drew swept into town with all his amazing finery, certain people in the Mardi Gras Indian community began referring to him as “the mystery chief.” Even before strutting his stuff on Carnival Day, Chief Drew was hailed as a cultural ambassador at City Hall, where Troy Carter, a member of the City Council, presented him with a key to the city. (Five days later, at Gallier Hall, he would receive second one, from Councilman Thomas.)
Accompanied by his wife and son, along with members of The Wild Tremé, Chief Drew showed up for the ceremony with his spear. That didn’t go over so well with one of the officers in charge of security. “You can’t come in here with that,” he informed Chief Drew, who responded by saying, “This is part of my regalia, sir. If I can’t come in here with this, then me and my gang is not comin’ in at all—keep your key to the city.”
The standoff was broken when Jim Singleton, a city councilman, intervened. Chief Drew was admitted to the council chamber, spear in hand. Once inside, the big chief was practically reduced to tears by a mysterious elderly man. Appearing just as the council meeting was about to get underway, he launched into the gospel number “Precious Lord, Take Thy Hand,” in a crooning, guttural voice. “He had everybody looking at him,” says Chief Drew, “and I was touched.” Then the old crooner approached the chief—who was dressed casually save for his headband, choke collar and alligator shoes—and said, “They took your country. Now it’s time for them to give you something. God bless you.” “I told him I’m a Mardi Gras [Indian], and he thought I was a real Native American Indian. I say, ‘Damn. I look like that?' ”
After returning to Los Angeles , Chief Drew had surgery on his right knee. Then, in December, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Luckily it’s in the early stages, so his doctors feel confident about effecting a successful treatment. In the meantime, Chief Drew is keeping his focus—on designing and sewing, which he calls “good therapy for the brain.” He’s already beaded a patch for the crown of his son’s next suit; it depicts a Baobob tree, which in Africa is a traditional source of food, clothing and shelter. And for himself, he’s procured some mink pelts, which he plans to use for a pair of pants and matching boots. The suit he has in mind, incorporating a multitude of “top-of-the-line” stones, would also include a mini apron and a vest with sleeves. For his headdress, he’s thinking about having a taxidermist cure a big peacock, which, he says, would fit “entirely over my head.”
Plans are in the works to include a skull-and-bones, or skeleton, unit. Traditionally, on Fat Tuesday, skeleton maskers appear on the streets of Tremé wearing large skull-like heads and black body suits with bones and fake blood and painted on them. They are mysterious and, to many youngsters, highly intimidating. Legend has it that the tradition began after a merchant marine returned to New Orleans from Mexico, where he had been impressed with the Day of the Dead celebrations that occur at the end of October.
And, with any luck, The Wild Tremé skeletons and Mardi Gras Indians, along with the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners and the Treme Brass Band, will roll with a female Samba troupe from Brazil, whose members include one of Patrick Tyler’s nieces. (The Wild Tremé trail chief is a native of Brazil ).
Chief Drew, who has been invited to perform in Brazil , is thrilled at the prospect of having Samba dancers leading the whole shebang. “Man, it look like they have rubber in their behinds, the way their cheeks be shakin’,” he says. “It’s all about culture, though.”  “What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is keep the culture alive.” He adds, “You don’t have to just have that culture in New Orleans. Wherever you go, it’s in your blood, it’s in your heart. So you always respect what you’ve been blessed with. And use it—just don’t let it sit there and die with you. Because, you know, the legacy of the Mardi Gras Indians is truth, strength and beauty when it’s passed on.” Special thanks to Graham Button of MardiGrasUnmasked.com for penning and sharing this retrospective.

WILD TREME
BLACK INDIANS

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Mardi Gras 2000, New Orleans, LA

(Then) one day in his back yard, where he often prays underneath a tree, he gazed up at the sky as a bird flew by. The sun turned blue and an idea popped into his head: Why not make his Biblical subject an Indian? Result: 
a beaded tableau featuring a feathered John the Baptist with war paint and crying eyes.

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