Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters dies
12th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
“Until you peep through the eye of the needle, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters Mardi Gras Indians once said, offering insight on what masking Indian meant to him. “When you look at the eye of the needle you see joy and you see pain — you see things a lot of people don’t see. This suit is me. I live Mardi Gras Indian 365 days a year.”
Larry Bannock, who truly dedicated his adult life to the Black Indian culture, died on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at the age of 66. Just three days before, the chief and his gang gave a strong performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.Bannock began masking in 1972 as a chief scout with the then-named Golden Star. That could be be considered a late start in the Indian tradition where children are often brought up in gangs led by their fathers, uncles or other relatives.
“My aunt and my mama really didn’t want me to mask,” explained Bannock who often credited Joe Caldwell as getting him involved in the Black Indians and being his mentor.
“He was a young man in the (Gert Town) neighborhood in the late 1950s,” remembers Caldwell, who was active with the Golden Star, the third chief of the White Eagles and is presently with the Golden Star Hunters. “I used to get the kids out there and teach them how to do the Indian dances and some of the old Indian songs. He enjoyed it and liked to be a part of it.”
Observing Bannock’s interest, Caldwell soon began instructing him on how to build a suit. He pointed out that old, discarded awnings could be cleaned up and cut to make an apron (the lower piece of a suit). Then they’d be ready to be drawn on.
“Mardi Gras Indians started out from the garbage can – you’d use whatever you got,” Bannock remembered. “Once I started sewing, I loved it and I wanted to do it more and more. Once I tasted it, it was like an addiction. This is a love. This is passion.”
Bannock rose within the ranks of the Gert Town gang – the only Indian group of which he was ever a member – to the positions of third, second and first spyboy. In order to preserve the gang’s presence on the street, Bannock, who enjoyed running out front as a spyboy, reluctantly took over its leadership in 1979 and renamed it the Golden Star Hunters. He affectionately called the gang the “17 hounds” – his “dog soldiers” of New Orleans’ 17th Ward. His finely crafted beading often referenced the canine names. Other times his designs depicted Native Americans or would make a particular statement.
When it came to the culture, Bannock emphatically spoke out and didn’t easily suffer fools. His notorious “Wanted Dead or Alive — $10,000 Reward” suit referenced, according to his long friend, companion and caretaker Rhonda Ford, his feeling of being persecuted for his strong opinions on Black Indians paying for others to make their suits.
“He was a real die-hard on the tradition and what was most important was that his bead work would stand on its own,” Ford says. “That’s what motivated him – he wanted to stand out.”
And he did. Big Chief Bannock, who worked as a welder, has traveled the streets of New Orleans with Golden Star Hunters, performed in France and New York’s Carnegie Hall and has been featured in National Geographic, “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours.” A registered master craftsmen, Bannock conducted many lectures and sewing demonstrations both locally and nationally.
“He learned more and more every year and he was always looking for a new way and new ideas,” Caldwell says. “He got to be very creative with it. He would work his heart out making those suits. When he got to be chief that was one of the greatest moments of his life. This was something that made him feel a part of the community and part of New Orleans and it kept him uplifted.”
It brings a smile to think of a 24-year-old, Larry Bannock masking for the first time in a suit of baby blue and hot pink. He once described himself as being “buck wild” on that memorable day. “When he was younger he was hard and with his height and his weight he was pretty rough out there,” recalls Caldwell, who is often called “Big Chief Joe” by many of the members of the Golden Star Hunters.
Big Chief Larry Bannock, who could often be found with a camera in his hand on a corner as a social aid and pleasure club would pass by, was intensely devoted to the Mardi Gras Indian culture. He wasn’t easy, but as the legendary chief once said, “Only the strong survive. If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.”
Funeral services for Big Chief Larry Bannock were held on Saturday, May 10, 2014, at the City of Love Church. Internment will be in the Musicians Tomb at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 at a future date.
This article originally published in the May 12, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.