New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians keep colorful, hand-crafted traditions alive

indian1.jpgVictor Harris, Big Chief of the Fi Yi Yi tribe of the 7th Ward, parades on Paguer St. near the The Porch 7th Ward Community Center in the New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day, Fat Tuesday February 16, 2010.

Chief Jermaine Cooper of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe was resplendent in his elaborate, peach-colored Mardi Gras Indian costume Tuesday afternoon.

Cooper posed in front of the Seventh Ward Neighborhood Center while war chants and bass drums provided background music for the unveiling of the costume he spent 12 months and thousands of dollars creating. Rhinestone-studded giraffes protruded from Cooper's chest, and his head was barely visible behind a massive helmet of feathers, fur and paint.

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For the past 12 years, Cooper has toiled to create a costume to march through the Seventh Ward on Mardi Gras day. His mother, Sherleen Cooper, said her son learned about the Indian tradition when he was 14 at the feet of late Mardi Gras Indian Chief Tootie Montana, and he's been caught up in it ever since.

Jermaine Cooper said he feels an obligation to create his costume and follow in the footsteps of those who came before him.

"It's just tradition, we got to keep tradition going," Cooper said Tuesday. "Who am I to not keep this going?"

The Indians don't draw big crowds as they march through the Seventh Ward, but each tribe has its own faitful followers and every year newcomers scramble to catch a glimpse of the towering headdresses.

The tribes don't follow set routes as they march through the streets yelling chants and dancing, and when they do cross paths, it's typically respectful.

On Tuesday, members of Yellow Pocahontas, Fi Yi Yi and the Creole Hunters all congregated at Pauger and Urquhart before going their separate ways.

Brandy Zayas came to New Orleans from South Carolina 10 years ago, and said she's always wanted to watch the Indians parade, but could never find them. This year Zayas happened to be driving by when she spotted some of them marching down Pauger and quickly jumped from her car with her camera in tow.

She said she was awed by the creativity embodied by the costumes, and the sense of fellowship enjoyed by those who follow the Indians.

Cooper said the Indian costumes are only bound by their creators' imaginations. While his outfit featured a half-dozen giraffes, another man's costume featured a massive parrot.

"If you can build it and design it, you can do it," Cooper said.

But the Indians' march isn't just about showing off costumes, it's also about passing something along to the next generation, said Candace Tate. Her father-in-law is Victor Harris, the leader of the Fi Yi Yi  tribe and her two daughters, Calsey Harris, 2, and Casey Harris, 9, were both festooned in traditional garb for Mardi Gras.

Tate said that her father-in-law designed all of the family's costumes, and creating the elaborate outfits required the help of several family members.

Tate said that her daughters became interested in the Indians after watching their grandfather create his costume over the years, and wanted to get involved. Casey has been marching for six years, while this was Calsey's first Mardi Gras as an Indian. Tate said the Indians help her family come together.

"I think it's more of a family thing," Tate said.