Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson uses her role to educate and preserve

The big, brushed-steel structure looks incongruous in the Upper Ninth Ward, set down like a spaceship amid historic shotgun houses. The building that houses the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum is as contemporary as you can get, but the traditions it honors go back more than 100 years.

Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians, is Harrison's daughter. Her brother is the renowned musician Donald Harrison Jr., and her son, Brian, directed the award-winning 2010 Mardi Gras Indian film "Keeper of the Flame." Both her brother and her son have masked as Big Chief. Her father, who masked for nearly 50 years, was one of the most renowned chiefs in New Orleans.

Harrison, who this Carnival season alone has traveled to Brazil, Canada and Chicago to perform and present on Mardi Gras Indian culture, has made preserving the family tradition part of her life's work. In 1998, along with her mother Herreast Harrison, she founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. The organization honors prominent Indians with annual awards, presents Indian-themed art shows and panels, and presents educational programs through the Guardian's Institute, an initiative created in honor of her father.

"Nobody voted for the women, though," Harrison-Nelson said of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame awards, which are chosen by a council of prior honorees.

"So I thought, I'm the curator – I'll honor women," she said on a recent afternoon at the museum, as she sewed beads onto a patch for her 2014 suit. She introduced the Queen's Choice award in 2005.

Since its inception, the Queen's Choice award has gone to queens, such as the late Barbara Sparks, Big Queen of the Yellow Jackets, who passed away in 2008; Rita Johnson, Council Queen of the Mohawk Hunters, who began masking in the '50s; Littdell Banister, who has been masking as the Tribal Queen of the Creole Wild West since 1972; Gina Montana and Aussetua Amoramenkum, Big Queen and Second Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas as well as Rita Dollis, Big Queen of the Wild Magnolias.

Besides the Queen's Choice award, Harrison-Nelson is active in other efforts to honor the queens. In 2013, the Hall of Fame put together the Spy Boy's Yearbook, a collection of interviews with Mardi Gras Indians spy boys.  In 2015, she'll publish "So, So Pretty: Mardi Gras Indian Queens of New Orleans," with the writer Karen Celestan, senior program manager at Tulane's Center for Gulf South Studies. Celesta edited jazz musician Harold Battiste's 2010 autobiography "Unfinished Blues."

Harrison-Nelson also has worked closely with Queens Rule, a program started shortly after Hurricane Katrina by Tulane professor Rebecca Mark, then the interim director of the university's Newcomb Insititute. The group partnered with V-Day, Eve Ensler's international organization that raises awareness about violence against women, worked with Newcomb new media classes to create video portraits of longtime queens, and organized public panels between groups of queens to discuss the tradition.

Harrison-Nelson is a very public face for Mardi Gras Indian culture. But in its essence, for her, the tradition is personal.

"When you start doing it, it really becomes a way of life," she said. "Everything you do is kind of filtered through it. You're inspired  - you're hypersensitive, because the whole thing is to be pretty, so you're constantly looking for beauty in the world."

"It's not traditional Western aesthetics," she said. "Nothing to do with Vogue. Nothing to do with size or height. Once you put on your ceremonial attire in this community, you will be affirmed as pretty. Because normally I wouldn't fit a Vogue standard of beauty, but when I put that attire on, people are going to tell me all day long 'You're pretty, that's pretty, you're beautiful."

This is part of a series of interviews with Mardi Gras Indian queens on this Mardi Gras season.

Listen to Cherice Harrison-Nelson describe how one suit represents, for her, both the civil rights struggle and her own feeling of freedom after undergoing treatment for cancer.