New Orleans — NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Coronavirus pandemic touched every facet of life, including many treasured traditions.
The Black Masking Indian tradition is more than a century old. Most trace it back to a combination of the musical traditions carried forth from Congo Square celebrations. The “suit” is an homage to indigenous communities where formerly enslaved African Americans found refuge.
Cherice Harrison-Nelson is putting the final touches on her ceremonial garb for Mardi Gras 2022, a yearly labor of love she’s indulged in for 30 years as Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame.
This year’s suit is a patchwork of memories. Each stitch works towards a mosaic honoring a loved one lost, like Mr. Joe Jenkins, the tribe’s Council Chief.
“The Council Chief actually has the most power in the group,” she says. “Because he’s a Council Chief to the younger chief and he advises him. It’s like a lawyer,” she says.
Jenkins died just short of his 91st birthday in April 2020 in hospice care with dementia. He had no wife and children. The Guardians were his family, and even that family couldn’t be by his side because of the COVID pandemic.
“He really was a good guy. He enjoyed simple things. We had a standing date to go get lunch,” Harrison-Nelson reminisced.
That date continued even once he was in full-time care with regular visits. It was painful for Harrison-Nelson to not be able to be there at the end. She said at the start of the lockdowns, every time they talked she’d just say she would visit soon, but when it became clear she might not get another visit she treated every call like the last.
Also adorned on her suit this year is a butterfly made by Ike Edwards, a longtime member of the Tribe that passed away in 2017.
The symbols honor some long lost and other recent losses exacerbated by the surreal time of separation during the pandemic.
Harrison-Nelson gets choked up, especially by the loss of her dear friend actress Adela Gautier, known to many as Adella Adella the Storyteller. She brought tales of West Africa to children of the region.
“By doing the memorial pieces, it reconnects me and reminds me how special these people were in my life and how much they loved me and how much I loved them,” she says.
After a pared-down celebration in 2021, her Guardians of the Flame will be out on Mardi Gras, but she’s not sure how many.
“Cause it’s COVID, we don’t know, but normally we have about six or seven,” she says.
When the tribes converge on their regular meeting spots, like Claiborne Downtown or at A. L. Davis Park in Central City, it will be a true homecoming, even if bittersweet.
Jeremy Lacen, Big Chief of the Black Flame Hunters, was surrounded by the masking tradition.
“When I was coming up, it was like once Zulu passed, you got Wild Magnolias coming up Jackson to Simon Bolivar. You got Creole Wild West coming from the opposite way on Jackson. You got Apache Hunters coming from around the corner. You know, they just coming from everywhere,” Lacen said.
Lacen said as kids, “we’ll go into the backyard and we’d perform like we’re Indians at the Mardi Gras.”
Masking himself since 2008, first with Geronimo Hunters, he made the decision his tribe would not come out in 2021. For his tribe and their families, he felt the risk was too great.
Though the gang will show off their finery this year, there is still an air of uncertainty.
“Some are scared. They wanna do it so bad, you know, They’re anxious, but in their heart, they really don’t,” Lacen said. “I’m not pushing them to do it, but I think we need to.”
Walter Sandifer III is the Spy Boy of the Beautiful Creole Apache Tribe. He started masking at just three years old.
His father, Walter Sandifer Jr. is the Big Chief of the tribe. They felt their neighborhood needed the masking display in 2021.
“It was awesome. It was great to see the people’s reaction because they were missing something,” Sandifer III said.
The tribe worked in medical masks to their regalia and tried to keep a distance, but wanted to bring something positive to what had already been a long, dark year.
“No parades. You can tell when they seen the Beautiful Creole Apache, everybody ran up like this who we’ve been missing,” he said.
“I have lost friends and family as well due to COVID,” Sandifer Jr. said. “So the most important thing we all can do is stay safe.”
COVID has also prevented the Sandifers from passing the masking tradition on to the younger generation, a right of passage integral to preserving the masking culture.
“I wanted to mask my nieces and my nephews but they babies so I don’t want to put them out there with all the COVID that’s going around... the new variants that’s out... I rather risk myself, but I can’t bring my babies out there and expose them to the sickness,” Sandifer III says.
“That’s what we do it for... to preserve the culture. And the only way to preserve it is to give it to the younger ones coming up,” Sandifer III says. “I’m going to feel a little bad that we are leaving the babies at home, but it’s for a better reason and hopefully next Mardi Gras will be safer for the kids to come out with us.”
“You do this for the people you know, you don’t do it for yourself. You do it for your neighborhood, especially elderly people that can’t go to St. Charles or Zulu. You want to pass in front of their house, show off your suit, give them a good time, make them feel good,” Lacen says.
“I feel like this tradition connects me to my ancestral homeland. I strongly believe that,” Harrison-Nelson said.
It all starts with getting the tribes back to the street on Mardi Gras.
See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Click Here to report it. Please include the headline.
Copyright 2022 WVUE. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2022 WVUE. All rights reserved.