Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians Tribal Queen Littdell Banister: 40 years a queen

Littdell "Queen B" Banister, tribal queen of the Creole Wild West, has been masking as a Mardi Gras Indian since 1972. At nearly 80 years old, she's still sewing.

"It's my life," she said, on a February afternoon during Carnival season.

"All the other holidays – Christmas, New Year's – well, we participate, but the main day is next Tuesday. After New Year's, if there are parties and we get invitations, we don't go, because we're busy sewing and getting ready for Mardi Gras day. We have a lot to do. Partying – I love to, but not right now. Right now I'm concentrating on getting it all together and hooking it up. It's my life. I'm a Mardi Gras Indian every day."

Littdell has been married to the rhythm and blues guitarist Irving Banister since she was 16 years old. Her husband, she said, never took interest in masking Indian; she started in the tradition because of their son, Irving "Honey" Banister Jr. In about 1971, she remembered, the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians – the gang considered to be the oldest in New Orleans – was being revived, and her son was asked to be chief scout. A year later, she joined as well.

This video portrait of Littdell Banister was made in 2010 by the Newcomb Institute at Tulane University in partnership with the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and visiting scholar Cherice Harrison-Nelson, cofounder of the MGIHoF.

Queen B- A portrait of Littdell Banister, Tribal Queen of the Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indian Gang (2010) from Newcomb College Institute on Vimeo.

Banister lives in a jewel-box house in Treme, adorned with decades' worth of pictures and mementos from her life as a queen. A good number of the photos depict her dancing. In 2008, she received the Crystal Feather award, the highest honor granted by the 15-year-old Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, the local organization that celebrates and preserves the singular tradition. It hangs next to a large photo of Banister dressed out in her suit, her long braids hanging under a beaded headband, her expression and carriage proud, fierce and regal.

Some Indians choose to honor their African ancestors with their suits. Banister, who claims Choctaw ancestry on her great-grandmother's side, says her style is an older one, focusing on Native American imagery in honor of what many say is the origin of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition: the Native American tribes who helped runaways travel safely away during the time of slavery.

"I mask as a Mardi Gras Indian paying tribute to the Native Americans. Not Africa, not black, not white – Native American," she said. "This is about the Native Americans that took the slaves in when they ran away from the slaveowners. All the other stuff they're bringing in – well, I'm staying traditional. Everything on my suit is about Native Americans."

Although Littdell Banister was herself in her 30s when she began masking, she would urge other women to start younger, and pay close attention, in order to learn how to do it right. Listen to her talk about what goes into being queen:

The photo in the Soundcloud widget, taken by Eric Waters at the 2008 Mardi Gras Indian Crystal Feather awards ceremony, hangs on Banister's wall. 

This is part of a series of interviews with Mardi Gras Indian queens coming to this Mardi Gras. Watch a video of Gina Montana, Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians.