93-year-old Mardi Gras Indian still sewing after 80 years
By CHELSEA BRASTED
Feb. 18, 2017
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — If you visit Isaac "Ike" Edward now, in his home with family members in Donaldsonville, you'll likely find him doing exactly what he would have been doing this time 80 years ago: Sewing.
At 93 years old, Edward has the kind of skills with a needle and thread that only come with two decades spent masking as a Mardi Gras Indian: donning his handcrafted suit and parading through the streets of New Orleans with his fellow tribe-members. Those years, between 1932 and the early 1950s, taught him to cut thread cleanly with just his teeth, and he miraculously slides it through the eye of a needle without the aid of glasses.
That, he'll tell you, is kid stuff, and kids these days got it real easy.
Edward came of age within the tradition as it began to develop within a modern world, but there were still no bead shops, no easy way to get feathers and certainly no Interstate 10 looming above Claiborne Avenue. This, then, is his story, told his way, about the years he spent as the prettiest flag boy you'd ever lay eyes on.
Before he served in the Army Air Corps, before a job in the Port of New Orleans that eventually made his knees give out on the long parades to get downtown, and before he learned to sew, Ike Edward was born May 5, 1923, at Charity Hospital.
He grew up in a home on Philip Street between Willow and Clara, smack in the middle of Central City and just blocks away from what was then Shakespeare Park. Playing in that park, which now bears A.L. Davis' name, as a young boy, Edward first saw the butterflies and chrysalises that would appear in his beadwork for decades.
You could say his fascination with them had something to do with transformation, and what it did to you to wear a suit and mask Mardi Gras Indian, but really, it was simpler than that. He just thought they were pretty.
Edward first saw Mardi Gras Indians when he was 8 or 9 years old. Families and friends were cooking and spending time at Shakespeare Park one Mardi Gras when the Indians came through.
"We knew what Indian was, because everyone would go see the Indians," he said.
One of Edward's friends was the cousin of Cornelius Tillman Jr., better known as Big Chief Brother Tillman.
"He looked so pretty on Carnival day, so I told Tillman, I sure would like to mask Indian for Carnival," Edward said. "And we started masking."
Tillman is now legendary among Mardi Gras Indians for teaching a new generation about the traditions of this unique New Orleans heritage, which are passed down by word-of-mouth and demonstrated by hand. Sewing and constructing beautiful, elaborately beaded and decorated suits is just as important as the songs and the public theater that happens when they hit the street on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph's Day.
Tillman helped teach Edward, who first joined the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians, and Edward's friend, Robert Nathaniel Lee, who would later become known as Chief Robbe (pronounced Rob-EE).
Part of the job was learning the songs, and Edward said he was never very good at singing. Still, he loved the way "Indian Red" could sound when everyone in the tribe jumped in, and remembers when "Shallow Water, Oh Mama" became a part of their sound.
Edward and his fellow Mardi Gras Indians had their tricks when it came to sewing, though. They'd go to the junkyard and scavenge for discarded women's dresses, especially Carnival ball gowns from the rich Uptown ladies. They'd look for beaded lampshades and anything else embellished with sequins or sparkling details.
"We'd take a razor blade and cut the sequins off the evening gowns and sew them onto our suits. ... If a lady had a pretty pair of earrings, we'd put that on our suit," Edward said.
"They'd send 'em to the junkyard, we'd go get them and take a razor blade, cut them and make our suit."
As is custom with Uptown tribes, Edward's suits were heavily decorated with ribbons, which often had to be purchased, and flat, beaded patches, so saving money where they could was deeply important. Even the feathers, used to decorate massive headdresses and details, were scavenged.
"You could find chickens and turkeys on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and that was the time to get your feathers, " he said. "You'd get in touch with the guy that's killing the turkeys, and you'd get those feathers."
Finding white feathers from a turkey or goose was a true rarity and left the Mardi Gras Indians using Tintex fabric dye to ensure they'd match their suits because, in the end, it was all about one thing: Being pretty.
It's a simple concept, but being the best looking Mardi Gras Indian on the route takes a lot of work.
"To prove that you were pretty, you took a picture," Edward said, pointing to a formal portrait he has of his final suit in 1952. "To prove that it wasn't word of mouth, you took a picture to prove you were pretty."
This photo, the one he pointed to, shows Edward standing tall and proud, and was taken at Magnolia Studio at 1610 Magnolia St.
"You took a picture every year to prove your suit."
That suit earned him a second place prize in a contest the Mardi Gras Indians held at Booker T. Washington High School.
That suit and the dozens of others Edward crafted by hand are why he takes issue with the past reputation of the Mardi Gras Indians, that they were rowdy and, at worst, violent.
The historic beginning of Mardi Gras Indians is contested by various historians. Like much of the city's early African American history, much of the record for the genesis of this cultural tradition has been lost to time or was never put to paper in the first place.
What is clear is the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians — who are sometimes called black masking Indians — has its roots in and celebrates defiance and self-determination, which is why some Indians feel they're showing their truest, innermost selves when they don their suits, according to Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame co-founder Cherice Harrison-Nelson.
But throughout several decades of the 20th century, the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians became known for violent meetings on the streets of New Orleans. It wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that a new generation of big chiefs helped turn that reputation around.
"When you masked Indian during that time, the Indians had a bad name," Edward said. "But it wasn't the Indians. It was the people on the second-line getting in trouble."
The reputation made his mother nervous about Edward masking, but he stayed out of trouble and focused on staying pretty. Edward landed a job as a longshoreman, working alongside Chief Robbe, and, in the tribe, Edward found his niche as a flag boy.
As all Mardi Gras Indian tribes are organized, each of Edward's tribe-members are tasked with different roles. There's the Spy Boy, who marches ahead and sees oncoming tribes to alert his own group, then there's the Flag Boy, who relays the Spy Boy's message and carries the tribe's colors. There's also the Wild Man, whose job is to clear the path for the tribe and keep crowds at bay before the Big Chief arrives. In larger tribes, there are female counterparts (known as Queens) and seconds or thirds of various roles.
Edward eventually joined the Golden Blade and co-founded the White Eagle Mardi Gras Indians. He spent one year as a second big chief after Big Chief Robbe when their friend, Lawrence Fletcher, pushed him to it. His heart, though, was always with the flag.
"You see, when you carry the flag, you're in the front of the gang. You give the signal. When you're with the chief, you gotta be in the back and you gotta worry if someone's acting bad," he said. "But with the flag, you're free. You're free. You wave your flag, you do what you want."
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com