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Saturday December 16th 2017

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Foo Foo Fest 2017: Masking In Belmont-DeVilliers

By Shelby Nalepa

The Back on the Blocks Festival is bringing a little piece of New Orleans to the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, the Foo Foo Fest block party will feature the Monogram Hunters, one of New Orleans’ most beloved Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

This traditional pow wow brings ornate beaded costumes, dance and celebration together for an African and Native American cultural experience that connects the Gulf Coast to the Seminole heritage.

Monogram Hunters Big Chief Tyrone “Pie” Stevenson is renowned for both creating and sewing colorful three-dimensional bead formations for his Mardi Gras Indian costumes.  He is accompanied by Big Queen Denice Smith, plus a little Chief, four little queens, two flagboys, a medicine man and other members of the tribe.

“My wife is the queen of the tribe, and we make all the decisions,” Stevenson said. “The tribe consists of my son Jeremy Stevenson, my nephew Keelian Boyd, as well as cousins and friends.”

The New Orleans native has been sewing costumes, or “masking” as it’s commonly called around NOLA, for over 35 years. He started when he was 12 years old after he became transfixed with the brightly colored costumes of the parade Indians as a child.

“I was fascinated by the colors coming down the street as we sat on the stoop watching from a distance,” Stevenson. “The Bible tells you that younger people have dreams and older people have visions. God gives me the vision every year when I’m constructing a suit.”

The history of his tribe’s name actually came from revered Mardi Gras Indian “Chief of Chiefs” Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, who passed away in 2005. Montana started Monogram Hunters in 1949, leading the tribe for over 50 years. Stevenson asked Montana’s father Alfred, who was a family friend of his mother’s, if he could take the name of the tribe for his own.

“I took the name to give back to the community, and even though Tootie’s gone, Monogram Hunters can still live on,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also carries on Montana’s tradition of non-violence within his tribe and community. The history of the Mardi Gras Indians has a violent past. Originally they were a violent group fighting over lands and wards surrounding the parishes, and used Carnival as a way to seek revenge by attacking while disguised in dress. Montana is responsible for changing the violent nature of masking, which Stevenson is proud to carry on.

“They have people who mask that don’t even know why they mask,” Stevenson said. “When you sew, it’s very spiritual and connects us to our culture. It’s been around for a long time but wasn’t as well known back then; it was going on in the community and in the neighborhoods.”

Stevenson said that his ancestors are Creole, mixed with French and Indian.

“The bloodline is there,” he said. “It’s in us. People who don’t have that connection, it’s sometimes hard for them to do what we do. We’re not making money off a tradition.”

Stevenson gives back by teaching an Indian beading and sewing class at a local community center, which he did for about five years.

“I would help the children that came with their homework, talk with them,” he said. “Half of the kids from that community center are still masking today. We’re saving lives, and giving those kids another opportunity besides selling drugs and turning to violence.”

Stevenson said that masking tightens family bonds and that parents get excited to watch their kids perform.

“It’s an evolution that we need more of,” Stevenson said.

MONOGRAM HUNTERS
WHAT: Mardi Gras Indians at Back on the Blocks
WHEN: Noon-7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4
WHERE: Intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers Streets
COST: Free, $10 for photos
DETAILS: backontheblocks.com