The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian phenomenon is part music, part
heritage, part ancestry, part revelry, part fashion, and oft
misunderstood. Chief Monk Boudreaux is one of the most famous and
enduring leaders of that culture and head of the Golden Eagle Mardi Gras
Indian tribe. He admitted that he shared those feelings of confusion
related to those traditions that he embraced long before he fully grasped them.
“My dad used to mask as an Indian,” he recalled. “We would get up at 4
o’clock in the morning, help him make his dress, watch him when he’d
leave, stay out there, and wait for him to come back. As I got older, I
started wondering why he was doing that. I never asked, but I knew there
had to be a reason.
“Then I started building up my own Indian
suit. I was 12 years old. My dad had stopped, so I went with another
tribe. I was chief scout the first year. The second year I was spyboy.
It’s a feeling you can’t explain, because it’s something deep inside of
Boudreaux noted that his elders never spoke of the
history of their traditions. “The older people didn’t talk about it.
They were scared that if someone found out they were Indians, they would
send them off to the reservations. Mardi Gras day was the only day that
you could come out and be who you really were. My grandmother—my
mother’s mom—she was on her dying bed. She called mom and said, ‘Tell
Joseph not to leave until I get there.’ That’s when she told me we were
Choctaw Indians. I was 27 or 28 years old at that time. Then I knew why I
was doing it.”
Indeed, the history of the Mardi Gras Indian
culture in New Orleans is complex, and accounts of its origins are
sometimes inconsistent. An affinity shared between Native American and
African American people, both of whom were enslaved and persecuted at
various times in the city’s history, was clearly a driving force in
those origins and the mixing of their cultures. Both ethnic groups also
share an appreciation of tradition, and the unique New Orleans Mardi
Gras Indian music, costumes, and rituals are a melding of influences
from both cultures.
The costumes provide a spectacular visual
backdrop that comes from the detailed and devoted efforts of the
participants. Boudreaux explained the effort involved in preparing those
“You start off with a piece of canvas,” he
explained. “You find a picture that you really like or you can draw
something out of your imagination. You draw it on the canvas, and then
you start beading. Just as if you were coloring something, you outline
it. After you outline it you start filling in the colors. Then you go
around it with rhinestones and start filling it out.
“You cut a
jacket out of canvas, then you cover it with velvet. You line it with
satin. You start putting your patches on. Then you make ruffles out of
velvet, and start going around your patches with velvet ruffles. And
Boudreaux confided that the costumes take about
eight or nine months to complete. One of the greatest concerns regarding
the continuity of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is whether subsequent
generations will have the patience and devotion required to preserve
As for the music, Boudreaux was at first influenced by his elders in the neighborhood.
“All lot of the older men in the neighborhood used to sing every day,”
said Boudreaux. “Ernie Benson, the blues singer, used to live in the
neighborhood. His dad used to sing every day. I would come home from
school, sit on the step, and listen to him sing. Another old man would
sing everywhere he went. I would just walk behind him and listen.”
In terms of celebrities, one memorable star sparked his interest in
pursuing music in a more dedicated manner. “When I was a kid, the first
person that I heard that really inspired me about music was Al Jolson. I
was real young then—about seven or eight years old. I used to just love
to hear that man sing.”
As he became involved with the
Indians, one of his mentors taught him a number of songs with the
realization that he would one day be the chief. Soon thereafter,
Boudreaux realized that he had a gift in terms of both performance and
“I started off singing Indian songs,” he said.
“Later on I realized that I could sing just about anything that I wanted
to. I could create my own music, and lyrics just come to me. If
something stays on my mind, I can make a song out of it.”
Boudreaux is known for his long-time collaboration with Big Chief Bo
Dollis and the Wild Magnolia group, though he left the group nearly a
decade ago to form the Golden Eagle Mardi Gras Indians. His latest album
Rising Sun is a collaboration with Reverend Goat Carson, a professed
As one might expect, the musical
influences are diverse. “It’s like a gumbo,” said Boudreaux. “There’s a
little bit of everything in it.”
Like so much of New Orleans music, an essential element is the appropriate rhythm that evokes participation from the audience.
“I have them hoppin’ and jumpin’ and havin’ a good time,” Boudreaux
laughed. “Because they love the music and they love what I do. You can
tell how they’re feeling by their reaction.”
He has found that
great music can induce such emotions even with reluctant participants.
“If you sit down and listen to Indian music and it’s got the right beat,
it does something to you,” he added. “One time I was performing at a
club in New York. A guy told me, ‘Monk, do you realize what you’ve done?
You’ve got people dancing that don’t dance.’”
The New Orleans
Jazz & Heritage Festival has increased the visibility of the music
of the Mardi Gras Indians, a fitting reward, given their integral role
in the festival during its infancy.
“We started Jazz Fest from
day one,” said Boudreaux. “Quint (Davis, the Director of Jazz Fest) had
us going out in the French Quarter to get people to come back to Jazz
Fest. There are a lot of people at Jazz Fest looking for talent, and
I’ve gotten a lot of gigs from that. It’s been happening for a long
Like many artists, Boudreaux finds music to be a
cathartic tool and a vehicle of expression in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“The music now is more powerful. A lot of guys came back to be here
where they were born into this music. And they’re putting everything
they have into it. You can play your music somewhere else, but you won’t
have that feeling that you have in New Orleans. Because this is where
the music was born.”
Music has also become a vehicle for
raising awareness of the plight of coastal erosion, a dynamic that
contributed to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, accelerated
in its aftermath. Boudreaux joined forces with blues guitarist and
singer/songwriter Tab Benoit and an all-star band of musicians in the
project “Voice of the Wetlands.” The group recorded and performed songs
aimed at raising awareness of this issue that is central to the
viability of the region.
“Reuben Williams, my manager, is
Tab’s manager also. When I start singing, Tab gets up there and starts
playing guitar like he’s been doing this music all of his life. We did
two albums for Voice of the Wetlands to let people know what’s happening
Boudreaux closed by passing on a message to Jazz
Fest visitors regarding the never-ending access to music and celebration
during the festival period.
“If you’re looking for a good
time, then New Orleans is the place to be. And Jazz Fest is really the
place to be. When Jazz Fest is over, you can go to any club and they’ll
be getting’ down. There’s no ending.”