Tootie Montana’s final words on this earth were, “I want this to stop.”
The legendary “chief of chiefs,” of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs was delivering a measured speech at a New Orleans City Council meeting in 2005 when he collapsed to the floor of the chambers and died.
The big chief, father of eight children, was speaking out against police violence visited upon the Indian organizations; a crew of New Orleans police officers had busted up an Indian gathering on the holy night that celebrates St Joseph, and Montana wanted to let the political establishment know that that was not to ever happen again.
Not on the chief of chief’s watch.
The funerary second line for Montana, a lather and craftsman, was said to have stretched across the whole of the city of New Orleans. Thousands of blue collar working folk mingled with the gentry at one of the largest memorial parades of the past half-century.
They made the dust come up.
In December 1884, Major John M. Burke, manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, brought the troupe to New Orleans for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Even in the olden days the Crescent City was always illuminating parading culture. A newspaper account of the opening of the show painted the scene thusly:
“…an onslaught of a whole band of whooping red devils … The Indians wore their semi-civilized garb…were gorgeous in their native war paint and spoke their own guttural language … and they went through the weird dances of their race.” The scene included “costumed and armed Plains warriors, some of them perhaps recent victors over Custer, striding proudly through the streets of New Orleans.”
Just two months later Mardi Gras day fell on February 17th, and the city came alive as over 50 Plains Indians marched to great fanfare across the city.
These two events would lead to the formation of the legendary Black Masking Indian gang, Creole Wild West. The group was formed by Tootie Montana’s great-uncle Becate Batiste circa 1885. The mythos of Batiste is shrouded in mystery but it is believed that the young man was in attendance at some of Buffalo Bill’s performances and was certain to have attended the Plains Indians parades during Carnival season of that august year.
For every historian who makes this claim there is another who seeks to refute him. The mythos is rich and there is plenty room for error as record-keeping of the day was scant.
The building that replaced the Montana family’s historical home at 1313 St. Anthony St. in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, and the surrounding neighborhood is still a locus of Indian gang activity. The folklore of the family was handed down through the generations by Becate’s sister, Jeanne Durrell who lived to be nearly a hundred years old. When Tootie was coming up in the comfortable, six bedroom home, 21 family members lived under the same roof.
The womenfolk busied themselves in the house’s three kitchens. The men swapped knowledge on their trades of carpentry, and related crafts.
The early days of New Orleans Indian gangs were notoriously bloody and violent. When a dispute arose between rival factions the men would settle their differences with fists, feet and sometimes, hatchets or knives. Pistol fire was rare but not unknown.
Many an Indian was carried off to the morgue after falling to a rival gang.
Allison Marcel Montana, born December 16, 1922, sought to change that.
Take the mic Mr Montana:
“I’m talking about men who’d kill you with their fists. Stone killers. Today people run to the Indians. During them days people ran away from the Indians.”
As the 19th century wound down, the Creole Wild West tribe migrated to to Uptown New Orleans, and a new gang was born in the old 7th Ward. Called the Yellow Pocahantas, they were led by Henri Marigny, Becate Batiste’s old friend, and fellow tribesman
The new Uptown iteration of the Wild West gang installed Robert Sam Tillman Jr. as their leader. Brother Timber as he was known was a bad man whose exploits are better left to another time as we must focus on the Montana clan.
Mardi Gras Indians rioting in pitched battles on the streets of New Orleans drew plenty attention from the police and as such the wild brawls needed to be curtailed by tribal leaders.
Tootie’s father, Alfred Montana, led the Yellow Pocahantas from the 1920s til 1941 and eventually became big chief of 8th Ward Hunters. Tootie was 25 years old when he joined his dad’s gang in 1947 but their alliance did not last long. Soon enough the younger Montana was big chief of a new outfit: the Monogram Hunters.
But by 1956, Tootie Montana assumed the mantle of Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahantas. He had come full circle.
Montana’s greatest achievement in the culture was to break the cycle of violence amongst the Indian gangs.
“They used to carry hatchets, razor sharp, and real shotguns. Now it’s all changed. They fight with their costumes…they try to outdress one another.”
“I’m the one who changed it from fighting with the guns to fighting with suits. Everybody in the city, even the rag men, in their mind they think they can outdo me. They be sewing to beat me and they get fooled every time.”
For 52 of the chief’s 82 years on earth his brand new-suit unveiling was one of the defining moments of Carnival season in New Orleans. Seeing Montana in his finery in a ritualized confrontation with another big chief was the apogee of Carnival revelry.
In 1987 governmental acclaim arrived as Montana received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship for his abilities as a master traditional artist. The big chief received international attention for this award.
That recognition was well-founded. Mr Montana created and sewed 52 suits during his time spent with the Indians. He would credit his wife Joyce as being a prime factor in being able to accomplish this herculean task. She was quite the seamstress herself.
For a time back in the 70s, Tootie Montana had over a hundred Indians in his gang. He led the biggest tribe in all of New Orleans but even the most dynamic of chiefs ages and in 1998 he stepped down as leader and accorded the honor of big chief to his son Darryl.
Tootie taught his charge well. The younger Montana’s suits feature some 500 separate beaded pieces woven into each of his creations. Darryl Montana began masking as an Indian at the tender age of 11. He is a magnificent craftsman in his own right.
On Mardi Gras Day it is crucial to arise as early as possible and make your way to the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans 6th Ward to see the Black Indians war-whooping their way through the narrow streets.
Somewhere Tootie Montana is making the dust come up.
Are you interested in researching Mardi Gras Indian folklore? Here are some names to vector in on in your studies:
On January 8, 2009, the city of New Orleans passed a resolution (Number R-09-16) proclaiming that the first day of Carnival/Mardi Gras Season 2009 and every year thereafer shall be designated as Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Day. This day falls on January 6th each year.
If you’re a cinéaste there are two movies that will be of great interest to you:
Tootie’s Last Suit
The Black Indians of New Orleans
And finally, there is a major, permanent art installation in Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. It is a statue of Tootie Montana created by sculptor: Sheleen Jones-Adenle. It was dedicated April, 2010.