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Victor Harris – 50 years of dedicated excellence

30th March 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

“My first year it was like Indian fever – all you could think of was sew, sew, sew, Indian, Mardi Gras, Indian, Indian,” exclaims Victor Harris. Harris, now renowned as the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, the Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, first masked Indian in 1965 as a flagboy with the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian gang. The tribe was then was led by Big Chief “Tootie” Montana who Harris remembers following as a very young boy. The Yellow Pocahontas was a strong presence in Montana’s and Harris’ 7th Ward neighborhood.

On Saturday, April 4, 2015 at 4 p.m., family, friends, fellow Black Indians of the nation and supporters will celebrate Harris’ half-century in the Indian tradition and as a community activist. The free event, which will include a presentation to the chief, will take place at Dillard University’s Georges Auditorium. Harris will be there to tell his story as well as remembrances by some of those who influenced his life including Tambourine & Fan’s and Freedom Rider Jerome Smith. Tambourines will undoubtedly ring during music and dance performances.



Harris spent 18 years with the Yellow Pocahontas, always “running flag.” However because veteran Ray “Hatchet” Blazio, who Harris greatly admired, held the first flag position in the gang, he realized he could never be the number one flagboy. After a time, he began describing his own position as “flag of the nation.”

When he did this, he says, it marked the beginning of his stylistically African approach to design that continued when he started his own gang, commonly called simply Fi-Yi-Yi.

“I was on that path,” the chief explains. “I was heading that way. I already changed some of my ways of masking {as a flagboy} by having a shield instead of a flag.”

A certain heartbreak still remains in Harris’ voice when he speaks of being “banished” from the Yellow Pocahontas in 1984. He won’t speak of the reason as he remains loyal to the gang – “I just love these people” – though one could speculate that his pain led him to perhaps greater things.

“Everything seemed hopeless to me — I had no tribe,” Harris remembers.” I was banned from the Yellow Pocahontas which was my community, my livelihood and everything else. And I loved masking Mardi Gras Indian. The only thing that I could do was to pray.”

“It was at night, I was all alone. I turned off every light in the house, the clock that was ticking, I stopped that from happening. I made sure the TV and the refrigerator were unplugged because I didn’t want to hear a humming sound. I just wanted to be alone with the spirit in the dark.

I woke up that next morning and I felt very good and I just started stretching and flexing my arms and started to say ‘Yi-Yi.’ Suddenly I stopped and then I said ‘Fi-Yi-Yi’ and the third time I screamed it ‘Fi-Yi-Yi.’ That was the first time the word was ever mentioned. That’s when the spirit hit me. That was my given spiritual cultural name and it represented Africa.”

The mid-1960s was an important and active time in Harris’s life. It was during this period, soon after joining the Yellow Pocahontas, that he also became a member of the then newly organized, youth-oriented Tambourine & Fan Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Its founder, Jerome Smith, an activist for social justice and equal rights, brought youths together, explains Harris, to make them understand that they were more than friends but brothers and needed to work in the community to help other people.

One of the group’s first actions was marching to City Hall to demand that a park be established in or near the 7th Ward.

“We used to play ball in the streets and a lot of times the police used to come and run us off of the streets and sometimes they’d lock us up,” Harris remembers. “Jerome got us all together and said, ‘We have to protest for a park’ because there was no parks close to us nowhere. There were 300 to 400 kids who marched.”

That led to the development of Hunter’s Field, an open grassy patch on St. Bernard Avenue just of North Claiborne Avenue, as a recreation area. The football team, which Harris coached for five years, was just one of the many sports activities that Tambourine & Fans’ members became involved in at Hunter’s Field. “We had a heck of a team,” Harris says proudly of his team that became a part of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) league.

Tambourine & Fan also presented annual parades to encourage participation among youths in this city’s cultural and musical traditions. The parading arm of the organization was called the Bucket Men. And though Harris never marched with the Bucket Men, he did design its accessories — their baskets, umbrellas and banners – for their annual processions. Naturally, his artistic efforts creating and decorating Mardi Gras Indians suits came in handy in these endeavors.

Harris cites a long list of people who have helped him learn about life, Mardi Gras Indians, the importance of community, building Black Indians suits and more. He does, however, give a particular shout out to one elder.

“I have a teacher called Melvin Reed – we call him ‘Left.’ This is the guy that really got me interested in masking. He was the one who really taught me how to sew. I helped him sew for others for two or three years and then I started helping others.”

For 32 consecutive years, the Committee of Fi-Yi-Yi has held a Back to School Picnic at Hunter’s Field. The goal has been to provide school-aged children with supplies needed for the upcoming school year. Today, such events, which are often well-sponsored and supported, are (thankfully) more common. Back 30 years ago, they were practically unheard of. “We planted the seed,” Harris acknowledges, while regretting that because of lack of funds it didn’t take place in 2014.

Harris’ immersion in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition and his commitment to the community began in his 7th Ward neighborhood – primarily in the area between St. Claude, N. Claiborne, St. Bernard and Elysian Fields avenues. His presence and influence has since stretched beyond those borders.

“This is something that I’m very proud to say that I enjoy doing,” Harris offers. “Not because of wanting to do this or wanting to be that but because it has brought so much life and joy to other people. It’s like being a medicine man. It would heal the community and bring people together.”

This article originally published in the March 30, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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