New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras. A unique aspect of the festive season is the African-heritage maskers known as Mardi Gras indians. These are Black folk who dress out in hand-sewn suits and parade through the community. It’s about much more than merely being pretty. Here is a explaining interview with my long-time amigo Peteh Muhammad Haroon.
Peteh breaks down his individual vision and the labor required to come out as Indian. Peteh also contextualizes his individual choice within the Black community at large. Sewing a suit for Mardi Gras is a social commitment.
Gathering up all the necessary material and social resources needed to successfully complete a suit on your own is virtually impossible. You have to have a crew; count on family and friends. Nor do you want random help from people you don’t know. The process of creating an Indian suit can not easily be replicated or duplicated by those who do not live in the community. Moreover, even though many have tried, commercializing Mardi Gras Indian culture and practice is almost impossible.
Being Indian is both collective and selective. Collective in that the tradition is long and deeply embedded in the Black community. Selective in that you have to make an arduous individual commitment of time and work. Like we say in the Big Easy, being Indian ain’t nothing to play with. You’ve got to be serious.
Kalamu: So just a couple quick questions. We see how beautiful your suit was, but the question is, you never came out as Indian before, right? This is your first one?
Peteh: Yes sir.
Kalamu: What was it, and I know it might not be a single “it”, but what were the number of things that inspired you to want to jump right in that water of being a Mardi Gras Indian?
Peteh: I guess a couple of things. As a poet and as an artist in the city, that’s one thing, but as we see monuments and stuff coming down in the city and we’re talking about images and we’re talking about cultural references and things of that nature. I feel like the older I get as a man in this culture of New Orleans, we have an obligation to preserve certain kinds of culture integrity.
I saw what was happening. A lot of younger cats were coming into the game and they were making it more about, how much money they were spending on the suit as opposed to how much they was preparing themselves to infuse a certain spirit in their community when they hit the streets.
So my good brother Shaka, after running with Yellow Pocahontas for almost twenty years, said that he was about to start his own tribe and he was looking for people to run with him who were not necessarily concerned with a particular downtown style of sewing, or uptown style of sewing. He wanted people to run with him that knew how to connect to the ancestral memory and to create something to bring that forward.
I feel like that’s what’s needed right now. For all this to flow from our instincts again and be ’bout the black masses creating and preserving culture we produced since being here in New Orleans, and the memories we still have from even before we got here to this country.
It just felt like the perfect time. Everything was aligned. Spirits being powerful like I felt before, but I never felt this humble before. One of the main reasons was just to really preserve the cultural integrity and just do my part as a man. I grew up around men doing this, and they did it with a certain sense of pride and confidence and integrity. I’m just doing my part, that’s all.
Kalamu: I know you as a poet and a performer, but I didn’t know anything about you working with the needle and thread, the feathers and stuff. You’re laughing, but where did that come from? I’m talking about your ability to do that. I’m not talking about the idea, because we see that every Mardi Gras, we see that all over the city, but where did your ability to do it, come from?
Peteh: Man, it’s like asking somebody how they know how to make their heart beat or something like that. I think it’s ancestral memory. I think I had the ability to sit down long enough and not get bothered by chasing the American dream. I could sit down and think on what should be done. So it was almost like a memory in me. We can’t help but do this, and I think the problem is, we don’t have an opportunity as artists, and as men in particular, to sit down long enough to see what our thoughts or our instincts are guiding us to do before we have to be caught up in flight or fight. We miss those subtle messages of guidance when we have to be reactive to life or responding to life in a hurry up kind of way.
I’ve worked with other crews before and other tribes, and I’ve sewn with them and all, but I think this sewing style that I employed with this particular suit, is something that merges our African tradition with some of our customs that we’ve been following since we’ve been here on this continent.
The styles that are brought together are too ancient for me to say that I was just sitting down one day and I just went and learned how to do this from somebody. You know what I mean?
It’s from generations before us passed down to us today. My poetry aspect of life was like the whole Griot tradition. It was just there in me until I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Then when I met you, then there was a decision that I had to make and then once that decision was made, I was guided to be able to manifest that gift or vision in the physical/material world.
Kalamu: Okay. So how did you decide to use the Sankofa symbol as the defining symbol of the suit?
Peteh: I guess the way that emerged was the spirit of going back into the past. I submitted to going back into the best part of our past, and bringing it to the present so we can move forward into a future that we determined. I think that was the best way for me to embody the past, present, and the future.
I think that looking at the past of what this culture meant to me and what I remember when I was a child. I remember the excitement, the enthusiasm for me to be able to see a common man who is just ignored and unappreciated or abused all year. For that one day he’s like a legend, he’s like a superhero of sort for the community. As New Orleans turns into this new melting pot, it’s new but that man been there. And that man should be respected all year, but some of the bothers and sisters I know that do this live on the margins of this society and are trying to be pushed further and further out. This city is our home so they could miss me with all this “new” New Orleans foolishness that they’re promoting. I have the responsibility and obligation to remind us of what made us the place that everybody loves when it comes to art and culture. We have to realize that it’s not our savageness.
It’s not our ignorance that people love about us, its not our abandonment of family and abandonment of other values. It’s the community approach that we take to our art. Functional art made us powerful New Orleans artists.
Kalamu: What do you mean by functional art?
Peteh: Art that could be used to inspire people or art that could be used for an actual purpose, other than just as a back up to something.
I was introduced to music as a behavior modifying thing. They introduced me to music so that I could begin to express my creativity in a positive way.
I’ve seen that people have taken music and used it for harm, even this tradition as Black masking Indians, and made it centered around violence as opposed to the spirit of Sankofa. I want to go back and take the best part of the work we did as artists and as creators from this region of the world, and then bring that to the right now so that we can continue to inspire the future. I want people to know that we come from something so strong, that we’d never have to fear annihilation and we’d never have to fear being totally wiped out because of what we’re connected to.
It’s the same creativity that went into a tree, and went into water and stuff like that. That same creativity is what goes into these suits. I think by me making a Sankofa bird such a dominant part of the suit, it couldn’t do anything but remind you how powerful we were. Then I added an image of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad on the front of my suit in the middle of 6 sankofa birds that represent each of my 6 children and on the back I put the star ant represents justice and that new moon to symbolize equality along with two ankhs and two adinkra symbols that represent our unburnable collective spirit.
So we were powerful and will be powerful. It’s not because of our ignorance or our obedience on this western culture’s value systems, it’s not because of our ability to carry guns or have big muscles. It’s our ability to create, it’s our ability to cultivate the earth, plant seeds and nurture that new life or idea with faith and patience and believe that those seeds are going to grow. Just stay engaged in the process stage after stage.
A year ago I didn’t know I was going to make it yesterday. Me being alive to come out the house on Carnival Day was not guaranteed. I didn’t get no letter saying how I was going to make it that whole year, but I still sewed with the belief that I am going to be alive that next day.
Sure enough, I was alive. So I think that was the spirit. And I tell you, one of the greatest feelings that I experienced Mardi Gras day was walking the streets. The chief was about to hit the stage [at Claiborne Avenue] and I was going to meet him. But after we walked down the green way, the park was so full of children. I couldn’t even make it to the stage.
By the time I got under the bridge, after stopping and hugging all the children and shaking hands I missed the tribe cutting up on stage, but just playing with the children in the community and looking at their eyes light up when they saw me. Maybe everything will sync up and I could hit the stage next year but this year it was about me embracing and inspiring those children. So I know a lot of people may not even know what the Sankofa bird represents, but there was a feeling in it. They felt the identity. So me personally knowing that my past is what made me who I am, not just my 44 years on this earth, but my past as just a creative being. It gives me the responsibility to show us that we are still here and we could be as strong and as powerful and as determined as we desire to be.
Kalamu: When you say your past, I assume that you mean also the people who inspired you?
Peteh: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Everybody who supported who I am. What I’m doing now. What I think and hope is getting done. There’s too many things being lined up for this not to be successful.
I’ve had money before. I had time before, but I never put a suit together like this before, because it’s not about just time or just money. It’s about a spiritual alignment that has to take place.
We continue to push ourselves to find the balance. I think we continue to inspire our community. Yesterday, when I walked out of the house, on my way to meet my big chief, I stopped by on Jeff Davis and Canal Street, and I wound up on the monument, where they took that Jeff Davis statue down. The platform is still left. So I climbed up on that platform and I took some pictures. When I tell you, it’s one thing to take monuments down, but when we realize our responsibility to put them up and we erect something that should be observed, we understand what that monument is worth.
Kalamu: My question has two parts. One part is, the suit, was obviously your idea, but you had beaucoup people working with you on that, you had a crew and a lot of people don’t realize, they see the Mardi Gras Indian and they don’t realize that every suit they see, it represents the work of a crew of people.
Kalamu: Some people might’ve put in one weekend, other people might’ve put in six weekends or whatever. Some people sew all night sometimes, and so forth. How, would you able to inspire a crew of people to make the sacrifice?
Peteh: Well, actually it was me setting my intensions and realizing that I had to ask for help. I think that the people in the community, they love it. They want to give to it because it means so much to them, but when I initially started sewing, a chief had to tell me “Hey, you’ve got to get help.” And I said, “What you mean?” He said, “You know it’s not all about doing it yourself.”
He said “You could, but the kind of life you have to live in order to do that stuff, is a life of solitude. In order for you to sew that entire suit yourself, you’d be a lonely person”. You really got to have a certain life that don’t reflect the community. So he told me that part of putting this suit together is not, “Oh look what I did and look at how much money I spent, look how many hours I put into it.” It’s about the energy and the creativity that goes into producing it because you represent so much more, so actually getting people to want to do it was the easy part. Getting out of my ego and wanting extra help that was the part.
No man could do it by himself, you know what I’m saying? That man got somebody. He got the solid partners in his corner. They’ve got to buy into it as well. And once they buy into it, then you tap into all the resources that they bring.
It’s a matter of letting people in the hood know that you’re going to have the courage and the strength to put that suit on and go out there with it. I mean its a communal city, it’s a communal culture, a communal art, it’s like a collaborative effort and it was easier for them to say yes, than it was for me to ask them to do it, you know what I mean?
Kalamu: Well, if I might put it another way, the community was ready. The question was, was the artist ready to become part of the community and reply on the community to make concrete the artist’s vision?
Peteh: It’s almost like having a child and you say “I’m going to homeschool my child”. And by that you literally mean that you are going to be the only influence in that child’s educational process, then it’s not going to be a super bright child. I mean that child will know everything you know, but it won’t know everything it can know as a child. You would be wise to invite the wisdom and creativity of others whom you respect.
So the suit is like that, I could have done it all myself. Sure, but it wouldn’t really reflect all the different elements, the different people in my community. It would have looked exactly like my life experience would have led it to look, but realizing I could tap into other people who travel the world, travel the block, travel the neighborhood, where ever they travel, I realized how much they brought to the suit. And let me tell you, my mom came over last night. She sewed my pants and my shirt that I wore under the suit. She was dealing with a lot of different stuff in the mix–life happens, people have accidents, things happen.
So she was pushing and she felt bad because she said “I couldn’t make this hem exactly like I wanted it to be on this part, I do not like this”, and you know what I’m saying? She was real worried because she thought she was the only one helping, and when she came to the house to drop off the shirt and the pants, and she saw everybody in the house full of people moving around and helping her son bring his vision to a reality.
One of the sisters who were helping with the suit asked the brother with the camera to “Make sure you get a shot of Peteh’s mom over here”. I didn’t know none of this was going on, but apparently my mom had this look on her face, this beam in her eyes, this excitement, this appreciation, and all these people here helping “my baby boy,” you know what I’m saying? Helping him with his vision.
There was some people whose help I had to refuse. I asked one person to come and help and they said “Yeah, I’m coming to help,” and then they told me that it would be them and some other people. Their cousin or some person that I didn’t know and because I didn’t know him, I said no. Masking is such an intimate process.
It’s not really like an open invitation thing. You have to live in a certain kind of way. And it’s not about religion, it’s not about sex. It’s not about how much money or about any of those things, but it’s a certain kind of a spirit.
You can’t just say yes to anybody who wants to help you and still be able to keep all the foolishness from going into that suit. So one of the things I learned with this process is to be sure to know what kind of help I wanted.
Kalamu: And also what help you didn’t want?
Peteh: Yes exactly. That’s almost more important.
Kalamu: Why do you say that’s almost more important?
Peteh: It’s one thing to know who you are, but it’s another thing to know who you are not. It gives me a parameter to work with. You know who you want, but if you don’t know who you don’t want then that person can tear up the whole process. They could bring confusion and chaos. It could bring energy to the situation, that’s not necessary. So it’s very important to know what is my kryptonite in this process. Whatever the process, whatever art I’m creating. They’re the element of kryptonite that is a disruptive This is a kind of superman’s process, you know what I mean?
Kalamu: I hear that. So in order to be the best superman that you can be, you also have to be on the lookout and avoid the kryptonite that could weaken you.
Peteh: It doesn’t take a lot of kryptonite to knock superman off his square. You better be aware of what your kryptonite is and guard yourself accordingly.
Kalamu: What the Mardi Gras Indians represent, in one sense, they represent the drawing on the best of the community to do something and then taking that best, and giving it back to the community. The Mardi Gras Indian walks through the community. You don’t go to a ballroom or to the auditorium to see the Indians, all you do is be out there on the street because the Indian is going to come by you.
Kalamu: That means taking the best of us through the community, where ever it may be in the community, but you’re not going to be no Indian and just be in one spot. You’ve got to go through the community.
Peteh: Yes, I mean as far as like you say, you have to go through the community and it was so cool. It was such an experience. I am the trail chief for the tribe. So I’m watching to see what’s coming behind, watching to see if they got any tribes coming from another angle where the spy-boy in the front can’t see them.
But as we go in, the people don’t realize that we actually have positions that we run in. So they want to stop you to take a picture. “Take a picture of my baby” or “Take a picture with my grandma”. They don’t care how heavy that crown is, and that thing is heavy.
But the thought of disappointing a person who wants to stop and take a picture would bother me even if they are not realizing I have to catch up with the chief cause I got a position I need to run. They don’t have any idea of that and could care less. I would have been the most low-down person in the world if I said I’m not taking a picture with this old lady. I take it, especially with the elders, and I take a picture with a little baby. If I didn’t, I would feel terrible inside. So, you have to realize that it’s not about just what my job is. It’s not a one dimensional thing we have, when we put this suit on.
So after I stopped with them, I had to run to catch up with everybody, but the idea of walking past people didn’t make no sense to me.
We follow the people, is pretty much what I’m saying I did. Folks will tell you “I know you got a job, but you better stop and take a picture with my little baby.” Otherwise, who I’ve got all pretty for? I want her to have this picture for the next 40 or 50 years of her life.
You see little brothers, they want to shake your hand. You see some of the children they cry because they can’t even understand this spiritual experience that they’re going through. You got to stay there long enough so that you don’t put fear in this child and you actually tell this child “I’m here to protect you”. I’m here to encourage you. I’m on your side. If you need something, you come running to me. Don’t run from me”.
I have the responsibility of doing that all while carrying a hundred-something pounds worth of suit for blocks through large crowds of my people. You know what I’m saying? But that’s quite a challenge man. It’s quite a challenge, but I think the challenge is not to make the suit lighter, the challenge is to make the shoulders stronger.
Kalamu: All right. I think we’re going to end it on that note, because that’s a beautiful note “The challenge is not to make the suit lighter, the challenge is to make the shoulders stronger”.