65 years of new suits for 80-year-old Mardi Gras Indian
20th February 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly
Thomas Sparks Sr., the Big Chief of the Yellow Jacket Mardi Gras Indian gang, marks two momentous milestones this month. On February 17, 2012, he celebrated his 80th birthday and Carnival Day stands as the 65th anniversary of when he began masking Indian. He again has needle and thread in his calloused hand, sewing his suit for his appearance this Mardi Gras. When the Big Chief steps out with the Yellow Jackets, which he’s led since 1955, he’ll be the oldest Black Indian on the streets.
“I used to follow them when I was a little boy,” Sparks says of his initial interest in the Indians. “When I seen them, I was right behind them.” Also sparking his childhood curiosity in the culture was the fact that his mother was a full-blooded Native American of the Cherokee Nation. “That’s how I got started in it,” he says adding, however, that she didn’t approve. “She couldn’t stop me. I was gone.”
In 1947, the teenaged Sparks became the flagboy of the Bumble Bee Hunters and stayed with the tribe until he went into the military to serve in the Korean War. The gang came out of the 7th Ward and the Chief remembers meeting now-legendary Indians and gangs like Allison “Tootie” Montana’s father, Alfred, who pulled the Monogram Hunters, Black Benny and Brother Tillman.
“It was a different kind of suit back then,” Sparks remembers. “We used jewelery, broken mirrors and cheese cloth.”
When Sparks was discharged from the service in 1953, he joined the Yellow Jacket gang, then under the leadership of Chief Val. He entered as a flagboy and, in a rather unprecedented move, the chief soon jumped him up to the position of chief. “Val put me in front of everybody,” Sparks remarks of becoming Chief of the Yellow Jacket tribe in 1955. He remembers that there was a time that an amazing 90 members hit the street on a Carnival day.
As Sparks works on designing his new suit in his small bedroom in his New Orleans East home, he remembers that his first suit as chief was white, just like this one. “It has a lot of memories in it,” he says. With an air of some dismay, the chief does admit that he has a back-up suit if he “gets into trouble” and doesn’t complete the outfit.
Well-known chiefs in the Mardi Gras Indian Nation have come up under Big Chief Thomas Sparks. They include Lionel Smith of the Carrollton Hunters and notably Sparks’ nephew, Big Chief Little Charles Taylor of the White Cloud Hunters who Sparks describes as like a son to him.
“He taught me since I was two years old – I used to stay with him,” Taylor says of his uncle and mentor who welcomed the toddler into the Yellow Jacket gang at that young age. “He taught me how to thread the needle and to lock down the pearl. He taught me how to sew the material around the apron before you sew the stuff on it. He taught me how to sew neat, how to keep things in line and how to correspond the colors.”
A retired mason and carpenter as well as a master designer and sewer, Big Chief Thomas says he’s not scared to tell anyone that it was Big Chief “Tootie” Montana who taught him the art of three-dimensional design. It’s accomplished by flexing poster board so that it “sets” or “puffs” up. “I’m the kind of person if I don’t know something, I ask somebody,” says Sparks, a man of humble yet competitive spirit. “When Tootie died, I had no competition,” he adds confidently.
Sparks’ competitive nature that can be seen on the streets as he and other the Mardi Gras Indians vie for the honor of being declared the “prettiest” is also realized in his other passion, pigeon racing. Just outside Sparks’ bedroom with its closet full of suits, a stunning, bejeweled Mardi Gras Indian apron and ruler lying on the bed, is an impressive 8×10’ coop housing some 75 homing pigeons. He explains that he’s active in the racing clubs that present two seasons of racing, one in the spring for the “old” birds and another in the fall for the “young” birds.
Family has always been an important aspect of the Yellow Jackets. At one point or another, all of Sparks’ children—six girls and one boy—masked Indian. His wife, Barbara, reigned as Big Queen of the Yellow Jacket gang, a position she played with such flair that she gained a great recognition in the Indian nation. She passed in 2008.
“She always had my back,” Sparks declares adding that she often manned a sewing machine in the creation of their suits rather than hand sewing the tiny beads and sequins of the design.
In the past, Chief Sparks recalls getting up at 4 a.m. on Fat Tuesday and traveling with his gang all the way uptown and back down. In the early 1960s, he’d even head to the French Quarter and was welcomed into the world-famous Pat O’Brien’s Bar. At 6 p.m., the Mardi Gras Indians were forced off the street and onto the sidewalk. Sparks says that procedure, which remains controversial today, was not a city law but a rule made up by the police.
This year, he and the Yellow Jackets, a gang of six that will include his son-in-law and grandchildren, will hop in a van and start their march at 10 a.m. on the corner of North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues. They’ll head up Claiborne to St. Philip and make their way into the Tremé and stop at the Backstreet Cultural Museum before going back to their starting point. There Sparks and members of his family, many of whom are coming to town for the dual occasions, will celebrate his birthday.
“It’s good to have somebody of that age masking because it keeps part of the old customs going,” says Sylvester Francis, the director of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. “He really doesn’t have to be out there. He paid his dues. He’s out there for the love.”
Sparks’ guidance gave his nephew, Charles Taylor, the tools to become a chief. Big Chief Little Charles, who’s renowned as a vocalist, formed his own gang, the White Cloud Hunters, in 1982.
“I would tell somebody that he’s a guy who explains stuff to you about being an Indian,” says Taylor, 57. “He’ll show you how to dress it up. He just takes and guides you. He took me to the Indian practices and I would hear him singing and I used to try to sing and I got good at it.”
Big Chief Thomas Sparks has spent a lifetime masking Indian. The decades working that needle and thread have not diminished his enthusiasm and creativity. Sparks, who performed at the first Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds and has traveled to Europe, eagerly demonstrates how the sequins are properly sewn on the decorative “patches” and tells how he always wears suspenders to hold up his beautiful aprons.
“I’ll meet the gangs I see,” Sparks says with a twinkle in his eye of his travels on Mardi Gras Day. “I like to dance—I’ll dance with all of the chiefs.”
This article originally published in the February 20, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.