Big Chief Allison Tootie Montana

Big Chief Allison Tootie Montana


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana on the way to Cemetery Number 2


To the Black men involved, the image of the Indian represented the warrior spirit that resisted

European domination. The Maroon spirit — the mixing of the Indians and blacks —

of self-determination and independence lived outside of white supremacy’s reach                            (photo credit: Keba Konte)



Chief’s Greatest Triumph Comes After his Death

By Marcel Diallo

The funeral procession for Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana meanders through

the neighborhoods of New Orleans on the way to Cemetery Number 2


New Orleans—Tamnourines, umbrellas, feathers and beads. Brass bands, African drums and thousands of funeral goers dancing in the hot summer streets of America’s oldest black neighborhood. So we gathered, one recent day, in the spirit of the late Allison Marcel Montana.

Big Chief “Tootie” Montana, as he was affectionately called, was the foremost figure to emerge from the Mardi Gras Indians, a New Orleans tradition of Black folks dressing as Indians for Mardi Gras. Montana died June 27 at the podium in New Orleans City Hall while addressing the City Council about the foul treatment of Mardi Gras Indians by police. With all his chiefs gathered around him, his last words were “This has got to stop!” Hundreds attended a three-hour mass July 9, followed by the colorful procession.

Since returning to New Orleans from a brief wartime stint working the shipyards of Richmond and Oakland between 1943 and 1947, Montana has been sewing a new Mardi Gras suit each year and is the undisputed master of the craft. Because of his unique three-dimensional innovations and his elaborate beadwork he stood out among other Mardi Gras Indians, and was known as “The Prettiest.” So pretty that one of his suits was purchased by the Smithsonian.

The Mardi Gras Indian culture from its very beginnings more than 130 years ago was an expression of Black resistance to a white supremacist environment in New Orleans.

As Jim Crow gained a foothold in the city, the “Indian” presence in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Carnival street processions grew more intense and visible. In a nutshell, the socially acceptable ritual of Mardi Gras Day activities in this Roman Catholic city served as a battleground for oppressed, Creolized, Louisiana-born Black men to masquerade in an Africanized version of the garb of their Native American ancestors.

To the Black men involved, the image of the Indian represented the warrior spirit that resisted European domination. The Maroon spirit — the mixing of the Indians and blacks — of self-determination and independence lived outside of white supremacy’s reach, in the swamps and forests that were too difficult to colonize in the early days of Louisiana. By invoking and allowing themselves to be possessed by these spirits, the Black men of New Orleans transcended the reality of their daily oppression to exercise serious spiritual power on New Orleans society.

Within this culture laced with violence, many internal battles ended in bloodshed. But Big Chief “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe emerged and changed the game from battling with knives and guns to battling with skill and craftsmanship. He became known as the peaceful warrior and he was crowned as the first and only Chief of Chiefs.

At his funeral, one of the officiating pastors said, “The Chief of Chiefs is being sent to see the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.”

Allison “Tootie” Montana was a long-time Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in New Orleans. Each year he meticulously created a unique costume with hand-strung beads and ornaments.

That Montana died fighting for the Mardi Gras Indians before the City Council has sealed his legacy. Many in New Orleans’ Black community view Montana’s death as a sacrifice, and Montana as a martyr for the cause.

The irony is that a civic fight for the right to parade the streets of New Orleans has culminated into perhaps the largest second-line funeral parade in the city.

As we stood on Rue St. Claude between the doorway of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church and the horse-drawn hearse a few feet away, awaiting Montana’s casket, the tension mounted. After about 30 minutes, someone from the crowd shouted “Inyuuuun!” and hundreds of tambourines shook and beat and the crowd yelled and whistled responding to the anonymous call. Then another voice shouted “Canafaye!” and all at once, the tambourines and the rest of the noise stopped on a dime.

All the Indians wearing masks — called masking — crowded the street between the church and the hearse and bowed down on the ground as pallbearers in black suits with bright white gloves marched slowly, carrying the casket of the Chief of Chiefs to the horse-drawn hearse. Then another voice yelled “Maudi kudi fiyo!” and the entire crowd answered with the slow-paced, traditional chant, “Indian Red.” Before long, Indian Red gave way to a faster paced “Tuway Packiway,” the horseman snapped the reins, the horse started walking and the parade began to move.

Traditionally in New Orleans, jazz funerals maintain a slow, sorrowful pace until the point of “cutting the body loose,” but the burial of a man of Montana’s stature proved difficult to pace. The thousands of second-liners seemed to be busting at the seams, celebrating all the way to the cemetery, doing the samba-like second-line strut to the rhythm of the brass bands, twirling umbrellas, chanting old songs and shaking tambourines. Dozens of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, from Montana’s Yellow Pocahontas, to the Golden Star Hunters to the Spirit of Fi YiYi, met each other in the streets enacting ritual war dances, stand-offs, and peace treaties.

Even for New Orleans, it was a rare occasion to witness. On Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph’s Day and Super Sunday the Indians usually come out in large numbers. But on this day, even old Indians who hadn’t masked in years came out in full regalia complete with new feathers and plumes on old suits for the funeral of funerals for the Chief of Chiefs.

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Marcel Diallo, 32, is an Oakland-based musician, writer and cultural historian. His family came to the Bay Area from New Orleans as part of the great migration West by blacks in search of jobs, a topic Diallo is researching for a book.

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BlogOn: The Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans have made immense contributions to New Orleans’ cultural landscape. Still, they are constantly harassed by the police. Why are expressions of Black culture by Black people repressed and marginalized only to be re-packaged and re-sold to mainstream masses? WhatchuThink?


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He’s The Prettiest

A Tribute To Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana’s

50 Years Of Mardi Gras Indian Suiting

 By Kalamu ya Salaam

The Mardi Gras Indians are called folk artists essentially because they are self-taught, non-institution sponsored, seemingly craft-centered artisans. They have been studied but never definitively defined, documented but never successfully duplicated. Do we understand them by focusing on their hand-sewn suits or on their rituals, the skill of a particular chief at sewing, singing, or dancing–can any part be comprehended without some feel for the whole? Indeed, who and what are the Mardi Gras Indians? . . . Louisiana Folk Life    Big Chief Allison Tootie Montana

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update 5 January 2012




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