The heat is rising on Treme as we gear up for the season finale next week. Two plotlines that will be familiar to some are taking centerstage:
- Did professor Creighton Bernette kill himself? The trauma of Katrina was too much for some New Orleanians to bear, among them documentary filmmaker Stevenson Palfi. And Bernette's character is based on the similarly overweight and ferocious Ashley Morris, who died in the aftermath of the storm (though Morris died of a heart attack, not suicide, and he was in Florida at the time of his death in 2008, while his wife and kids were home in New Orleans).
- Is chef Janette leaving the Big Easy for the Big Apple? The topsy-turvy world of post-Katrina sent as many diehards a-packing as it brought YURP's a-coming. But Janette's dilemma is one that predates Katrina: do those "only in New Orleans" moments make up for the city's dysfunctional infrastructure? The question is particularly cutting for those in the music and restaurant industries who prop up the local tourist economy but are essentially service workers and are the last to get paid. ("Would you rather have a funtional economy or a 4-hour lunch?" asks Davis. "Is your check from the tourism board in the mail?" Janette shoots back.)
But rather than deliberate these developments, I'm going to precipitate future ones... for next week is shaping up to feature the most alluring and mysterious topic in Treme: Indians!
As I've said before, Mardi Gras Indians are African Americans who dress in elaborate handsewn costumes and parade through the streets, singing chants and facing off against one another, on Mardi Gras day. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux of the Guardians of the Flame tribe couldn't mask on the first Mardi Gras after Katrina because he was in the lock-up for punching a cop in the face instead of bowing down to those who protect and serve.
Confrontations between police and black Indians go way back.
Mardi Gras Indians channel the fierceness of the American Indian warrior in symbolic battles ("humbugs") over suits ("who's the prettiest?") and verbal sparring matches using idiosyncratic words ("Indian talk"). But historically humbugs were not limited to the symbolic realm. Until the 1940s or so, rival tribes from the Uptown and Downtown neighborhood met at an in-between site known as "the battlefield" where there was often bloodshed. One of the fiercest chiefs, Brother Tillman, was sometimes jailed during Mardi Gras to maintain order. (Lambreaux, anyone?) The violence dissipated around mid-century, some say because of police crackdowns and many more say because chiefs decided to redirect their disputes into the symbolic realms of masking, chanting, and talking.
Tootie Montana was the most celebrated chief of this new phase of Indian warfare. Tootie was The Chief of Chiefs. And he was The Prettiest. He worked days as a lather, preparing the moldings and frames for plastering, and then he worked nights and weekends sewing the prettiest suits ever to grace the streets. He had help from his wife Joyce, daughter-in-law Sabrina, and son Darryl, who was named Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in the 1990s when his father threatened to retire. But Tootie masked until his death at 82 in 2005 because he was fierce and hardheaded, earning the admiration of future chiefs who would always show respect by kneeling in front on him on Mardi Gras day, even if his unbending determination caused friction at home (as shown in the film Tootie's Last Suit).
Tootie's powerful presence came from his work with a needle + thread rather than hatchet + spear. But the police continued to harass him and other tribes, breaking up Indian gatherings ostensibly for stopping traffic and parading without a permit. This was especially true on St. Joseph's Night, March 19, when Indians take to the streets again to show off the suits that rival tribes may have missed on Mardi Gras day. Large crowds of African Americans in the streets at night is not something New Orleans police receive sensitivity training about. They tend to burst on the scene in great numbers, lights flashing and sirens whirring, hands on their billy clubs. (As they may also do during a jazz funeral in the Treme, after insensitive neighbors make noise complaints.) (Davis, anyone?)
This is precisely what happened on St. Joseph's Night 2005, when cops forcibly dispersed Indians from marching as they have done for a century or more. There was community outrage, and the issue was brought before a City Council meeting, where Tootie took the pulpit and gave an impassioned speech that situated the encounter within a lifetime of police harassment that dated back to Jim Crow days. He then collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead, as his family and fellow Indians gathered around him to sing the Mardi Gras Indian prayer chant Indian Red. If there is ever a need to demonstrate the power of culture and music then this moment will quell any doubts, and it is hauntingly captured in Tootie's Last Suit as well as reporter Katy Reckdahl's piece, which like so many of her other stories linked from here, is proof that she is the city's best (only?) investigative journalist.
How will Simon and his crew treat Chief Albert Lambreax's return to the mask on St. Joseph's Night for the season finale? The only hint we have is the most recent episode's meeting between Lambreaux and Lieutenant Colson, who urges Lambreaux to keep the peace:
LAMBREAUX: Tootie died on the battlefield that day.
COLSON: But Tootie wasn't looking for battle.
Will the chief punch a cop? Kill somebody with a pipe? Or take the high road, like Tootie did, and preside with willful benevolence.
Simon should know what to do with this one. After all, my friends saw him out on St. Joseph's night this year, following the Indians with some cast members and ordering up some BBQ off a grille parked in front of the Sportsman's Corner. My wife and I had just left to take our daughter to bed so we missed him, but I can tell you there was no bloodshed or police confrontations to witness, just some amazing suits + songs to go along with the beer + BBQ.