Shoulda Been in NOLA: The Glory of (and Troubled Backstory to) St. Joseph's Day

People who talk about New Orleans from afar, who long to be in New Orleans and get there whenever they can—people like me—talk about Mardi Gras. They talk about jazzfest. They book their flights and set their sights on hitting the ground running for these and other moments.

My sacred pilgrimage?

St. Joseph’s Day, once the sun is setting and on into the night. When Mardi Gras Indians do the inscrutable, essential and brilliant things they do, and have been doing for a long time.
It’s been that way since I first experienced the event in 2006.
And it’s killing me that, for the first time in nearly a decade, I didn’t make it on Thursday night. Luckily, a lot of friends and associates sent photos, including the one above, from Bryan C. Lee Jr, at the Arts Council New Orleans, and this one below, from Katherine Cecil, a wonderful filmmaker and photographer.

The best context came via an article in The Advocate by Katy Reckdahl, who has deep knowledge of her city and its culture (and how the two relate), and is my favorite reporter to read on any topic concerning New Orleans. Her piece begins with some unfortunate but important history:

When it happened, Justin Harris was a teenage spyboy for the Wild Tchoupitoulas, clad in a suit of purple feathers.
He’d spent hours sewing beads onto canvas to create his apron, which bore the image of an Indian riding a bear. He could hardly wait to take part in St. Joseph’s Night, when suits like his seem to glow under the streetlights, he said.
Instead, on that night 10 years ago, Harris was surrounded by police officers who had their guns trained on him. All around him, New Orleans Police Department squad cars drove with sirens blaring and at high speeds, creating clouds of dust as their cars fishtailed through A.L. Davis Park in Central City, a traditional Mardi Gras Indian gathering spot on St. Joseph’s Night. Police forced Indians clad in their feathers to the ground, in a scene that was captured on video and witnessed by hundreds….

But it ends on positive note:

….Big Chief Gerard “Bo” Dollis Jr., of the Wild Magnolias, got a text early on Fat Tuesday from 6th District Commander Ronnie Stevens. He offered to send an escort if the tribe was still headed downtown despite the weather.
Around 6 p.m. Thursday, when Dollis arrives at the corner of Second and Dryades streets, he knows what he’ll see.
“They’ll have police there already, waiting for us,” he said. “Probably two cars and two horses.” While the tribe is on Dryades, the police will keep the crowd back. And when they move toward A.L. Davis Park, police will ride ahead, clearing the way for them.
It’s the way things are with the NOPD today, Dollis said. “They’re more helpful than harmful.”

I’d like to think that the ways in which New Orleans officials—from Mayor Mitch Landrieu to city council members to NOPD police leaders—worked to respect the cultural traditions of Mardi Gras Indians and to transform a troubled context surrounding these traditions bodes well for the issues now facing the city council regarding sound ordinances and a curfew restriction that directly affect the traditions of brass bands and other NOLA musicians.
I’m going to sign off here, with the very end of my 2010 Village Voice piece, pegged to the debut of David Simon’s HBO series, “Treme”:

St. Joseph’s night, March 19—an Italian-American holiday appropriated as one of three times each year that Mardi Gras Indians come out in feathers and beads—is chilly but clear. A nervous energy spikes the mood, the residue of the Mardi Gras Day dust-up with police. Yet by 9 p.m., the Indians are out on the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, the cameras clicking, the patrol cars keeping deferential distance. Two gangs, the Seminole Hunters and the Red Hawk Hunters, face off in mock battle—a glorious blur of deep green, lime green, lavender, and royal blue set to a mash-up of fierce chants and incantatory beats. As backdrop, unfinished two-story, mixed-income units masked in Tyvek HomeWrap loom from the site of the former Magnolia Projects, an unsightly reminder of a lost battle over public housing. Mary Howell stands amid a small group wearing Day-Glo green caps emblazoned with “National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers.” An older black man in a shirt shouts, “Two-Way Pocky Way” (a Spyboy’s warning, some say, that rivals approach) to no one in particular. Two girls and two boys, none more 10 ten years old, sit on the curb, their blue-feathered fans beside them, one girl rubbing her eyes. And there’s Simon, wearing a black Kangol hat and a broad smile, his face just inches from a mass of feathers, perhaps making feverish mental notes or simply thinking what I’m thinking: You just can’t make this stuff up.

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