On Mardi Gras day, the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe – the Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Wild Man, Queen, Little Braves, Trail Chief, and the others – don stunningly beautiful costumes, then run through throngs on North Villere Street to greet Big Chief Darryl Montana. Big Chief Darryl then leads them to Congo Square for a silent prayerful moment. After that, they begin their daylong search for rival tribes. As Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, Darryl Montana is not only responsible for the tribe, but also presides over the legacy of a culture that touches his family, his neighborhood, and his city for generations past and generations to come. The Montana’s family grasp of the Mardi Gras Indian culture goes all the way to Becate Batiste and the Creole Wild West which is believed to be the earliest Mardi Gras Indian tribe, or gang. Darryl’s grandmother, Alice, who is nearing 100 barely remembers her Uncle Becate. But his spirit would live with the Montanas for an entire century. Becate was a harbinger of Mardi Gras Indian culture. Alfred Montana was the warrior. ‘Tootie’, Montana, Son of Alfred, was a keeper and ambassador. Darryl Montana , Son of ‘Tootie’, is the future.
New Orleans provides the backdrop to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Its ancestral neighborhoods, unique history, and cultural offerings provide the stage in which their unique pageantry takes place. The Mardi Gras Indians of today walk the same streets, occupy the same homes, and chant the same chants as those long since gone. The Creole Wild West began in the late 1800’s in the seventh ward neighborhood identified in old New Orleans maps as La Nouvelle Marigny, or New Marigny located roughly between St. Claude, St. Bernard, and Elysian Fields Avenues. Though not as well publicized as the adjacent neighborhoods of Faubourg Marigny, Treme, and the French Quarter, its architecture contains a similar mix of nineteenth-century Creole cottages and shotgun houses.
As members from the Creole Wild West migrated about the city, new gangs emerged, and tribes took root in other downtown wards, and uptown across Canal Street. Unlike the pomp and formality of other Mardi Gras offerings, the Mardi Gras Indians have no publicized route, handbooks, or by-laws. They do not seek parade permits. They do not sip champagne toasts or schmooze with City Hall politicians in front of Gallier Hall on Mardi Gras Day. Yet, their appearances can generate more electricity than Rex and Zulu combined, and their breathtaking hand-stitched costume artistry draws accolades from visitors around the world. The recognition they seek is not found in the society pages, but in the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the residents in the city’s older working class neighborhoods in which they romp. Indeed, there is nothing quite so photogenic as a Yellow Pocahontas against a clear blue Mardi Gras sky.
Each of the approximately thirty-five New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tribes are themselves a social family fostering unity, sense of purpose, loyalty, and transmission of culture. The Montanas are New Orleans’ first family of that cultural expression.