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'Tootie's Last Suit' Looks at Mardi Gras' Black Indian Krewes

As recalled in Tootie’s Last Suit, Allison "Tootie" Montana saw in his role a means to make and also to remember history, to carry on a legacy.

Tootie's Last Suit

Director: Lisa Katzman
Cast: Allison "Tootie" Montana, Darryl Montana, Fred Johnson, Reverend Goat Carson, Gina Montana, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis
Rated: NR
Year: 2009
US date: 2012-01-04 (Stranger Than Fiction)

"You can't be an Indian every day," observes Fred Johnson, former Yellow Pocahontas Spyboy. Still, he notes, the weight and meaning of being an Indian for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, can shape your consciousness, your sense of identity and place in your community. And Tootie Montana, Johnson says, "He took being a chief serious."

As recalled in Tootie’s Last Suit, Allison "Tootie" Montana saw in his role a means to make and also to remember history, to carry on a legacy. Premiering at Stranger Than Fiction on 21 February, followed by a Q&A with director Lisa Katzman, the documentary looks at how that legacy affects not only Tottie, but his family and community as well. He actually doesn't remember that much about his father -- who appears in old photos and footage here, brilliantly adorned as a chief himself -- but when he was a child, Tootie knew his daddy was "black and he had a mouthful of gold. Any man I seen had an Indian suit on, black with a mouthful of gold, I thought it was him."

And, just as Tootie adopted his absent father's allegiance to the Krewe, and the annual Mardia Gras celebration, showcasing his own ingenuity and pride, so too, Tootie's son Darryl took on the role of chief of Yellow Pocahontas, learning to sew from his father and his mother Joyce, understanding the value of traditions, the ways that costume and music and dance can convey resistance as well as conformity. The film looks at this experience -- multiple, complicated, not exactly resolvable -- by tracing a history of the Mardi Gras Indians and also looking at individual expressions of same.

The film notes that African Americans in New Orleans were masquerading as Native Americans in the 1700s, in honor of runaway slaves who found refuge there. The tradition was passed on, so that when, in the 1800s, participation in the city's parades were officially limited to "white prosperous males" (whose activities and hierarchies tended to "reinforce the social order), black krewes were forging their own sort of Creole identities, drawing from multiple sources. At least one inspiration was segregation, which produced various sorts of resistance, a commitment to cultural preservation, and a sense of autonomy. As Jerome Smith, Director of the Treme Community Center, puts it, "Being housed in what is a dominant Catholic community protected certain things and even in ways, segregation had a lot to do with isolating us and helping us to determine the vocabulary of our existence."

That vocabulary -- to this day -- incorporates forms of expression from various sources, from the Native Americans who were subject to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and genocide, to the Wild Wild West Show of the late 1800s. "This is what truly stirred the black Indians" in New Orleans, says Reverend Goat Carson, "They picked up on the spirit of the Native American warrior." Again, the phrasing is instructive: the show and the commemoration help to build identity, to sustain a population's resistance against oppression.

This particular show is premised on sequins and headdresses, peacock-like plumage and, as Gina Montana says, "male dominance." This is not to say that Mardi Gras Indians embrace a conventional masculinity. Instead, the "battling with beads" determines who's the prettiest, who's the most sensational and most revered. Johnson observes that Tootie's brilliance has been shaped by his own experience, as well as that of his community: "His inward disturbance came out as a beautiful outward expression." Retired in 1997, he " turned over the chiefhood to Darryl," says Joyce. "When I found out my father was no longer gonna dress," Darryl remembers, he knew right away that "no one can fill his shoes." Instead, he says, "I think I've set my own standards, I have my own identity in my work." Darryl's phrasing speaks to what being chief means: it's work as well as celebration, an identity as much as a performance. If you're not an Indian every day, you know what's at stake in your work. Indeed, Darryl brings the cameras into a classroom where he's teaching children to sew and to dance, so you see that this cycle goes on.

The cycle isn't always smooth. Even as Tootie's Last Suit narrates a disagreement between father and son (having to do with Tootie's decision to dress one more time in 2005), it never loses sight of their shared dedication, their insistence on the importance of the history Tootie embodies, having dressed for some 50 years, as well as the history Darryl embraces and means to conserve and also carry forward. If the suits each year are different, showcasing individual inventiveness and competition, they also make the past visible, again and again. That past is by definition troubling, a function of racism and slavery, and it continues to inform the present.


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