Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, the 2013 edition
6th August 2013 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Spy Boys Here Dey Come
Cherice Harrison-Nelson, like her father Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., her mother Hearest Harrison and brother Donald Harrison, Jr. a jazz saxophonist and leader of the Congo Nation Black Indian tribe, doesn’t do anything part way. As the co-founder along with Dr. Roslyn J. Smith of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, Queen Reesie has taken the organization’s annual celebration that recognizes the contributions of the Mardi Gras Indians from a modest, one day event held before an assemblage of mostly young students at the Oretha Castle Haley Elementary school to a week long series. It actually began last week with this year’s honorees being recognized by the New Orleans City Council. They include inductees Big Chief Womble, Jr. of the Cheyenne Hunters and Queen Patrice Gordon of the Golden Blade.
Leading up to Sunday’s (August 11) free, main event, the Mardi Gras Indian Memorial, Awards and Induction Ceremony at the Ashe Center, there are several related activities.
The Hall of Fame has declared this as the year of the spy boy and has published a book in recognition of this important position in Black Indian gangs. “He’s the first person you see,” declares Cherice of her decision to feature spy boys to start the series. She eventually intends to spotlight all of the positions in the tribes.
The book, The Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Spy Boy Year Book, is being published in a limited edition of 200 copies. It will be on sale at the release party from 6 pm to 7:30 pm on Wednesday, August 7 at the Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Road as well as at the Induction Ceremony. Publication of an expanded edition is due in early 2014. Proceeds from the sales of this edition will be used for the expanded version as well as future volumes of the “Year Book.”
Some of the images, including photographer Eric Waters’ cover shot of Spy Boy Kenneth Scott of the Mohawk Hunters plus others, will be on view from 6 p.m. to 7:30 on Monday, August 5 at the Jazz & Heritage Foundation Gallery, 1205 N. Rampart Street.
Harrison-Nelson put a call out for writers to contribute biographies of spy boys for the book. Aware of her selfless dedication to the Black Indian culture and to education, many responded. Below, are two, edited excerpts that I wrote for the publication
Spy Boy Lloyd Keeler
Lloyd Keeler, the Spy Boy for the Apache Hunters, has followed the Mardi Gras Indians since he was a child though it wasn’t until 1993 that he began masking. He was encouraged to join the gang by its Chief Preston Whitfield, an Indian who Keeler used to watch when the chief was himself a spy boy for the Apache Hunters.
“I was sitting here in my living room and sewing like what I’m doing now and Preston came over and said he was bringing the Apache Hunters back and he wanted me to mask with him,” Keeler remembers.
Keeler, 55, who is known for his superior skills with a needle and thread, began sewing Black Indian suits 10 years earlier. His cousin, Pauline Johnson was the Queen of the Creole Wild West and wanted Keeler’s young son to mask with the gang. He built his son’s suit and has been sewing ever since. He’s also been a mentor to his nephew, Kendrick Jones, who also runs spy boy for the Apache Hunters.
Keeler doesn’t draw his designs but in a wonderful example of continuing the Mardi Gras Indian tradition he uses ones sketched decades ago by Chief “Big Ernest” McCormick, the father of Chief Preston.
“Chief Ernest used to do all our (the Apache Hunter’s) drawing,” says Keeler. “I had, and still have, a lot of them that he drew for me in the 1990s. I’m on one of the last ones that he drew for me now.
Spy boy is the only position Keeler has held – or wants to hold—and his only tribe has been the Apache Hunters.
“When they smile and you’re knowing you’re beautiful and knowing what you created – it’s a joyful thing,” says Keeler of stepping out on Carnival Day.
The Apache Hunters is like family to Spy Boy Keeler. “We do things together, we hang together,” he explains.
Spy Boy Keeler is rightfully proud of his beading talent and his ability to build a suit that is perfectly tailored to fit his 6’2” frame.
“My gang calls me ‘The Great One’. The chief gave me that name. That means a lot.”
Spy Boy Kendrick Jones
Kendrick Jones, 24, first masked spy boy with the Apache Hunters in 2012. In 2013 he hit the streets in a black suit with beaded designs depicting Native Americans hunting buffalo.
“I wanted to mask since I was younger but they (the Apache Hunters) made me learn how to sew and learn what it (the tradition) was that I was getting into before I could actually put on a suit,” Jones says.
Jones began sewing when he was about 17 and was taught by his uncle, Lloyd Keeler. “He showed me how to build a suit, how to sew a suit and how to make an Indian story and your life story together,” Jones explains.
The Mardi Gras Indian tradition runs long and deep in Jones’ family. A black-and-white photo of his uncle and aunt, Chief Henry Thomas and Queen Shirley May Thomas of the Golden Sioux, hangs on Jones’ wall. The picture of the two, who began masking in 1956, wearing their Indian suits became one of the inspirations for Jones to follow in the culture. Besides his uncle Keeler, who Jones declares to be “the best spy boy out there,” other family members are active in the Semolian Warriors and Uptown Warriors gangs.
“I chose spy boy because it was intriguing to me,” says Jones, who is one of three holding the spy boy position in the Apache Hunters. “By my uncle being a spy boy, that’s who I watched.”
Jones calls the Apache Hunters as being like a brotherhood – a fraternity. “I respect every gang to the utmost,” he offers, “but the Apache Hunters are so unique because they are deeply rooted. They are Indians all year round.”
Spy Boy Kendrick isn’t as interested in surpassing other Indians as he is in making the best suit possible.
“Your goal is to always outdo the year before,” he declares.
This article originally published in the August 5, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.