Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief celebrates 50 years of masking

Landry-Walker high school in Algiers exploded Friday night (June 23) in a flurry of feathers and drumbeats as the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians congratulated Big Chief Tyrone Casby for his 50 years in the parading tradition.

In the high school auditorium, family, friends, politicians and fellow maskers took turns at the podium, lauding Casby's accomplishments as an Indian leader, an educator, and a stalwart supporter of the Algiers neighborhood. When the speeches were done, Casby's wife Lesa took the microphone to beckon the Mohawk Hunters to "come get your Big Chief."

Casby, who was wearing a dress shirt, bow tie, and vest -- befitting his role as principal of Landry-Walker -- was suddenly surrounded by a spectacular chaos of peacock plumes, as the tribe danced and chanted around him. To the pop and sizzle of tambourines, Big Chief Casby sang the Mohawk Hunters marching song.

In an interview before the celebration, Casby pointed out that the Native American-inspired suits are an important part of the African-American masking tradition, but they are only the start.

"It's not just a bunch of guys dressed up in Indian suits; it has a deeper meaning," he said.

Casby said that, for him, Mardi Gras Indian masking reaches all the way back to Congo Square, where the enslaved people of color were allowed to express their own cultures, and it reaches back to the street parades long practiced in African-American neighborhoods during segregation.

The suit, he said, "is just a facade; I'm expressing a spirit deeper than the costume."

  

No one in attendance would question that the spirit was in the air Friday. After Casby said a few appreciative words to the crowd, the Big Chief led a parade from the auditorium, down the high school's staircase, into the ground floor atrium where the Hunters continued their boisterous, echoing serenade. 

More than one well-wisher challenged Casby to put in another half-century of masking. 

"No doubt," he said laughing. "I'll work on it."