Big Chief Junior of the White Eagles dies
17th February 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wykcoff
Eugene Thomas, Big Chief Junior of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indian gang, masked Indian every year for more than 60 years. The chief, who at the age of 11 began his life-long involvement with the Black Indian culture, died on Friday, February 7, 2014 at the age of 76.
Thomas’ uncle, Lionel Pierce, who at the time was a member of the Cheyenne Hunters, introduced his young nephew to the tradition. The first position he held was as a scout with the tribe. Chief Junior once explained that when he was coming up, positions like spyboy and flagboy were left to the elders.
In a 2009 interview, Thomas told how it was Pierce who taught him how to sew and instructed him on the history, customs and rituals of the Mardi Gras Indians. “He taught me not to depend on anybody,” said Chief Junior, recalling when his uncle wouldn’t allow him out of the house until his crown was properly constructed. “When I went outside, he said, ‘See, I told you you could do it.’” That lesson stayed with Thomas who in 2009 was sewing his suit alone in his small house on North Villere Street. In his later years, Chief Thomas sometimes walked by himself on Carnival Day and at Super Sunday parades.
Through the years, Thomas moved on from the Cheyenne Hunters to mask with the Yellowjackets led by a chief he knew only as Shrimp. He then went out with the Diamond Stars under Chief Sunny before joining the White Eagles that was then headed by the noted Big Chief Jake Millon. Millon, who died in 2002, gave the gang to Chief Junior.
Big Chief Junior followed old-time Indian ways, hitting the streets early on Mardi Gras Day. “Now the Indians come out when it’s time to go in,” he once said in disbelief and with a touch of disappointment. Just as most Indians did in the past, the chief would often walk all the way across town to meet with other Black Indian gangs before returning back downtown. To the last, he was also very secretive about the color of his suit.
Naturally, the style of Chief Junior’s suits changed with the different eras. Decades ago, he decorated his suits with turkey and chicken feathers that were garnered from wholesale poultry stores or the local butcher. He explained that Indians favored tail and wing feathers that be would plucked and put aside for use. Thomas particularly liked the brown feathers with a touch of gold and enjoyed dying the white ones. Following their immersion in vats of dye, he remembered hanging the feathers with clothespins to dry on a line in the sun. In the modern era, Chief Junior purchased feathers and plumes to decorate his suits that were also adorned with patches with beaded illustrations that he designed and sewed himself. “I don’t let nobody sew on my suit – I don’t let anybody see it. If anybody comes in my house, I cover it with a blanket.”
Just as his uncle taught him, Big Chief Junior was passing on his knowledge to his young grandson with the hopes that someday he would take over the White Eagles. “The culture is already in him,” he once proudly proclaimed.
Big Chief Junior was an inductee of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, which recognizes individuals’ contributions, dedication and sacrifices to the Black Indian tradition. In 2009 the organization honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Much has changed in the Black Indian culture since Big Chief Junior started out as a scout with the Cheyenne Hunters, a period when a gang might have some 35 members or more. Chief Junior changed with the times while maintaining his old-time Indian ways. He’ll be missed by those in the Indian Nation as well as folks who would watch him come down the street with a certain, dignified serenity and a smile on his face.
“It gets in your blood,” proclaimed Big Chief Junior, the leader of the White Eagles, one of the oldest gangs in the city. “I loved it when I was young and I love it still yet.”
Funeral services for Eugene “Big Chief Junior” Thomas were held Saturday, February 15, 2014, at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home, 1615 St. Philip Street, New Orleans.
This article originally published in the February 17, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.