Hard Head Hunter Mardi Gras Indian's best experience each year is donning his handmade suit

Ramon Antonio Vargas, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune By Ramon Antonio Vargas, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune MardiGras.com
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on February 21, 2012 at 11:30 AM, updated February 22, 2012 at 9:01 AM

In the last 12 months, Eddie Vanison has played a recurring character on the HBO series “Treme,” and he has solved crimes as a detective for the Mandeville Police Department. But neither of those experiences quite measures up to what has become his favorite: masking Indian on Mardi Gras with the Hard Head Hunters tribe of New Orleans’ 7th Ward.

eddie-vanison-gang-flag-big-easy.jpgView full sizeEddie Vanison, a.k.a "Gang Flag Big Easy" of the Hard Head Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe, unveils his suit in the 7th Ward on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012.

Vanison on Tuesday morning unveiled his latest suit.  Velvet and gold, its beadwork depicts him fighting off humans with crab claws for hands trying to yank him down near an inscription warning, “Caution haters beyond this point.” The suit symbolizes the 37-year-old’s efforts to fend off negativity in the world, and it is the product of sewing for endless hours and suffering countless  needle pricks.

“Words can’t explain what it feels like when it’s time to put your suit on,” Vanison said. “For me, it’s like a woman who’s been planning for a wedding for a year. ‘This is her day. This is what she’s been waiting for.’ Every time I put it on, this is how I feel.”

Vanison has been masking Indian on Mardi Gras for 10 years, eight of those with the Hard Head Hunters. The tribe’s big chief, Otto “Chief Fiyo” DeJean, 34, moved to Slidell after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home.

Vanison, DeJean’s cousin, already lived in Slidell prior to the hurricane, and he had to rebuild his home which flooded during the storm.

Regardless, DeJean and Vanison still meet up with other tribe members at their headquarters on A.P. Tureaud Avenue: Bullet’s Bar, which is owned by a relative of DeJean’s. They depart from there to parade through the streets of their old neighborhood, accompanied by musicians on tambourines and drums.

Residents snap pictures of the Indians and their elaborate suits from the sidewalk, exclaiming, "Pretty!" and "You look so beautiful!"

The compliments are earned by sacrificing as much rest and relaxation as possible to sew, sew and sew, DeJean and Vanison said.

Fixing leaky faucets and broken door handles around the household can be put off for a while, but “some things, you can’t sacrifice,” DeJean remarked.

Vanison has two sons attending St. Augustine High School. One has football games, and the other performs in the marching band. He investigates cases with the Mandeville Police Department five days a week, and he has appeared in three episodes in each of the first two seasons of “Treme” portraying Memphis Ronnie, a Mardi Gras Indian role he successfully auditioned for.

Similarly, DeJean has sons and daughters either playing football or enrolled in dance classes. He, too, is a Mandeville police officer manning 12-hour shifts up to 22 days monthly, and he has portrayed Mardi Gras Indian George Cotrell on a dozen episodes of “Treme.”

That is why masking with an ornate suit on Fat Tuesday marks a personal victory of time management that is especially exhilarating to people such as DeJean, Vanison and their comrades.

“We lose a lot of blood, sweat and tears to accomplish this,” Vanison said. “You have to love it to be able to do it. … It’s a good feeling.”

Ramon Antonio Vargas can be reached at rvargas@timespicayune.com or 985.645.2848.