Skip to main content

Texas Folklife in New Orleans: The Katrina Connection

On Tuesday April 2nd I attended Cyril 'Big Chief Iron Horse' Green's funeral in New Orleans.  

As Big Chief or leader of the Black Seminoles Mardi Gras Indian tribe, Iron Horse was a well-respected community leader of New Orleans' 8th ward.  His use of a wheel-chair earned him his nickname, but Iron Horse didn't let his condition slow him down.

Green was involved with other Indian tribes, beginning as Second Chief of the Flaming Arrows in 1992. He then held the same title with the Young Cheyennes before forming his own tribe, the Black Seminoles. He was inducted into the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame in 2006 and received its highest honor, the Crystal Feather; he then served as Vice President of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Circle of Chiefs. He was also a computer scientist, holding an associate degree from Delgado Community College. He made regular visits to local schools and to the Jazz & Heritage Festival, where he was scheduled to appear again this year.  (Offbeat: Louisiana Music & Culture)

Iron Horse passed away in late March and while there was grief and sadness from Iron Horse's family and friends during the funeral ceremony, the second line funeral parade that followed reminded me that a funeral in New Orleans isn't like a funeral anywhere else.  I had met Big Chief Iron Horse in Austin, TX and New Orleans, LA while conducting ethnomusicology research for my master's thesis at UC Santa Barbara.  Iron Horse lived in Dallas, TX for a time following hurricane Katrina, while other stewards of New Orleans culture including musician Cyril Neville and Mardi Gras Indians including Iron Horse's relative Big Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows, and Big Chief Darold Gordon of the Young Navajo ended up in Austin.  My previous work with Mardi Gras Indians explored the ways they continued their cultural practices in other cities after they lost their homes and possessions in the 2005 levee breach.  When Iron Horse passed, I was invited to go on a trip to New Orleans for the funeral by my friend and collaborator Jimmie Dreams, an Austin-based guitarist who performed with many of the musicians and Mardi Gras Indians in the years following Katrina.  We hit the road with Lori Stevensen, a supporter of New Orleans music and culture and close friend of many of those who ended up in Austin after Katrina, on what was to be an action-packed 30-hour stay in the city. After an all-night, bleary-eyed drive through Houston and across Louisiana on I-10, we arrived in New Orleans in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday and eventually headed to Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on St. Roch Avenue for the funeral.

The outpouring of community support for Iron Horse was indicative of how the Mardi Gras Indians tradition continues to bring many people from different wards of New Orleans together.  Several chiefs from other Mardi Gras Indian tribes also attended the ceremony, including Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, Bo Dollis, Jr. of the Wild Magnolias, and Victor Harris of the Fi-Yi-Yi.  Several members of the Queen council, the female leadership of the Mardi Gras Indians, and Thomas "Big Chief Bo" Dean also made remarks at the service.  At the end of the church ceremony, the pall bearers carried Iron Horse's casket outside the church, where a massive crowd awaited.  A neighborhood brass band, several groups of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, and the second line of community participant tambourine players and dancers then marched through the streets of the 8th ward along with a hearse carrying Iron Horse's casket.  It was a moment of a community defining itself, saying goodbye to a local hero and leader that helped shape it and carry its traditions forward. 

While important questions about the "true Indianness" of the Mardi Gras Indians is often raised by those unfamiliar with the tradition, as well as some Native American Studies scholars, there are two critical issues at play in understanding this.  First, this urban tradition arose when African-American communities in New Orleans grappled with what cultural studies scholar George Lipsitz calls families of resemblance, that is, the similarity of their own struggle for dignity and equal rights and that of another oppressed people, Native Americans. Secondly, many African-American in Louisiana can in fact trace their own Native heritage, but many are barred from claiming citizenship in Native American tribes because they are seen as 'too mixed' and therefore not Indian enough to qualify for the benefits granted by the State and Federal governments.  Elwin Green Gillum (Queen Chief Warhorse), leader of the Chahta Indian tribe of Louisiana, was one of those in attendance for Big Chief Iron Horse's funeral. She is the direct descendant of the last Queen of the Tchefuncta Nation, who ruled over the nation when, as a part of the Florida Territory, they lived under treaty with Spain. Like the Seminole, who harbored black people seeking to escape enslavement, Chahta bloodlines are now thoroughly intermixed. (  The Chahta Indians and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are bound through community, shared histories, and ambassadors who continue to forge the connections between the city's musical and cultural heritage and the traditions of the surrounding area's Native tribes.

Texas Folklife continues to highlight the cultural overlap of Texas and Louisiana, from the longstanding shared tradition of the accordion to the more recent Katrina connections highlighted here.  In December 2012 Texas Folklife helped with a youth-produced radio story about Big Chief Darold Gordon for the Stories from Deep in the Heart youth radio program.  Look for more on the Katrina connection in the coming year.