The Wild Treme

Big Chief Andrew Justin began preparing for Mardi Gras 2000 on February 28, 1998—just after returning to Los Angeles from the place he calls “home”: New Orleans. Four days earlier, he’d taken to the streets on Fat Tuesday, leading a one-two punch in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade—The Wild Tremé Mardi Gras Indians and The New Orleans Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners. His own costume, intricately beaded and elaborately plumed in lime green, included a “crown,” or headdress, measuring 15 feet across. His boots were made from snow-white fox pelts imported from Antarctica. Talk about a pretty, pretty big chief. Chief Drew returned to Los Angeles , where he has lived since 1976, knowing that the combo’s next Mardi Gras outing wouldn’t be until the millennium. Most of the members are transplanted New Orleanians living in the Los Angeles area; due to the cost of regalia and travel, they can only afford to make the pilgrimage every other year. So you’d think that Chief Drew, who founded both groups and produces much of their attire, might have wanted to give the needle and thread a rest. No way. “You know, I like doin’ this. I feel like a junkie sometimes,” he confides. “If I can’t be sewin’ or designin’, then I feel lost. I feel like I lost my best friend.”For Mardi Gras 2000, Chief Drew returned home as a Mardi Gras Indian version of a Zulu warrior, masking once again in the Zulu parade. Costing approximately $18,000, his “suit,” as Mardi Gras Indian costumes are known, was almost certainly the most expensive, if not the most elaborate, ever made. In the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, the guest house in New Orleans where Chief Drew and his family were staying, in the Tremé neighborhood, bustled with activity—and anxiety. Chief Drew, who has a history of knee problems, was limping. His left knee had become inflamed, and he’d left his medicine in Los Angeles. The upshot: He’d have to ride in a convertible for at least part of the parade, an arrangement that was subject to a flurry of last-minute negotiations with Zulu officials. Meanwhile, Chief Drew was receiving a steady stream of visitors: the word had spread about  “the man from the West Coast” and his drop-dead-gorgeous regalia. Mardi Gras Indian chiefs tend to have a gift for braggadocio, and Chief Drew is no exception. Offering a preview of his Mardi Gras 2000 finery, he declares: “There’s no Indians down here [in New Orleans who] sew like this. And I’m gonna brag. You know why? Because I’m the prettiest.” No question: The chief had created a vividly detailed storybook of a suit with symbols and images depicting, among other subjects, the historical connections between Africans and Native Americans, and the plight they endured under slavery and colonialism. Included among the designs were specific references to his personal ancestry, a fascinating mixture of European, African and Native American bloodlines. Ivory-colored ruffles made of 100% virgin silk trimmed the shoulders, cuffs and Egyptian-style collar. Pieces of African ivory, mirrors and hand-made satin roses accentuated the beadwork; 1000 yards of ivory satin ribbon hung from the cuffs and apron; and four pounds of ostrich plumes beautified his crown and staff stick. Accessorizing the crown were a troika of feathered peacocks and a beaded portrait of the legendary Zulu warrior Shaka. Chief Drew’s footwear—festooned with ruffles, roses and marabou (ostrich down), and studded with a pair of large crystals in the shape of teardrops—was also something to behold. Sewn onto the front of each boot was a beaded tableau, or “patch”—one depicting an African warrior, the other an African woman. The details, upon closer inspection, suggested their procreative powers. Perhaps most striking, though, was the suit’s glittering multitude of diamond-like glass crystals—Chief Drew calls them Aurora Borealis, or “AB,” stones—and larger, colored stones—Italian crystals, as they’re known in the trade. Little wonder the entire suit, including the staff stick, weighed in at over 130 pounds. “You know, if you want to be pretty,” explains the chief, “you gotta be heavy." Read more...