Big Queen Gina Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians shows off her suit

Gina Montana grew up in New Orleans watching members of her family mask Indian. But, she said, it took several years away, going to college and living in New York, for her to truly appreciate how special the Mardi Gras Indian culture was.

"It was all I knew growing up, so I thought it was just a regular thing that was special -- you did it on Carnival or Super Sunday or St. Joseph's night, or you saw Indians at the Jazz Fest, but that was just like a part of life.

"But when I traveled and went away as a student, it was like, wow, we have something really, really special. It's authentic, it's traditional, it's original, it's Africa, Native America. So that's when I saw that this was something really unique in our community."

Montana was in her 30s when she first masked as Big Queen to her second cousin, the legendary Tootie Montana. It was 1995, about 10 years before he died. His influence is still present, she said, noting how the Chief of Chiefs' -- as Tootie Montana was called -- style and technique are visible in one of her suits.

"When my daughter Jahia was about 3, I got over to Tootie and Joyce's house on Villere Street, and I was like, 'Chief, you know I've been following you all these years.'"


Gina Montana, Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians Gina Montana will celebrate her 20th anniversary of masking as Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas in 2015. Here, she talks about learning to sew from her cousin, the late Big Chief Tootie Montana, and working with current Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Darryl Montana. Hussein, a Spy Boy with the Black Feather tribe helped sew the suit pictured. Joyce Montana, Tootie's widow, helped with the sequin "filling in" work.

"He would see me in the parade, I'd have Jahia on my shoulders so she could see.

"Tootie, he said, 'If you come over, we start early, I'm going to teach you how to sew.' He didn't say, you're going to be my queen or anything like that – the focus was, we're going to teach you the sewing. So that's when I started going over there, and it literally turned my life around.

"I was unemployed at the time, I was a single mom, one child, no transportation. I'm catching the bus, cabs, bumming rides everywhere. So, when Tootie started teaching me how to sew, he was giving me materials in his color, but I wasn't even thinking about it – we never had the discussion, he never said, 'Could you be the queen?' It was just a natural thing, we were sewing together and he was helping me along, he would give me materials in his color. And I was on unemployment, child support, but it was important for me to pay for the suit."

"It was not just his design, his artistic skill, but the way he taught, the way he would teach other Indians how to mask. Because I was one of his many students. A lot of other chiefs, spy boys, we say, 'I come from out of chief camp,' meaning Tootie Montana."

Gina Montana hasn't gone out with the Yellow Pocahontas every year. On years she didn't make a new suit, she's masked with Zulu, and as a skeleton with the Northside Skull and Bones Gang. In 2014, she also is taking the year off, but she plans to make a big showing next year to mark her 20th anniversary as Big Queen.

This is the first of several interviews with Mardi Gras Indian queens coming to this Carnival season.

Listen below, as Gina Montana talks about what being the Big Queen means to her. (The photo in the Soundcloud widget, by Alan Zakem, shows Montana on Mardi Gras day 2010.)