For Mardi Gras Indians, annual West Fest parade is the last time to show off this year’s suits

Tyrone Casby is a big chief for the Mohawk Hunters, the only Mardi Gras Indian tribe on the city’s West Bank. He’s also a school principal at the city-run Youth Study Center, where he often talks with troubled juveniles sent to the center about the Indians’ culture and history, and how the tradition unifies them and their community.

“Instead of beef this or beef that, we teach camaraderie,” said Casby, 60, who has masked for 50 years and has led the Mohawk Hunters for the past 34 years.

“We tell them: ‘You live in the same community; you learn how to be friends.’

“If they have an argument or disagreement, they learn how to agree to disagree.”

On Sunday, Casby and the Westbank Steppers Social Aid and Pleasure Club co-hosted West Fest, an Indian parade to bring attention to his home neighborhood, Algiers.

Old Algiers has been the base of the Mohawk Hunters since the 1930s or 1940s, when Casby’s great-uncle Frank Casby started masking after watching Indians across the river.

The Hunters share characteristics with tribes across the river but have evolved on their own, with a unique mix of sewing styles and personnel and probably a higher proportion of schoolteachers — including Casby, his flagboy and two of his sons — than any other tribe.

On Mardi Gras morning, Big Chief Casby had 30 Indians following him, making his the biggest tribe in town by most accounts.

Casby attracts younger followers partly because his tribe sponsors an after-school sewing program at Craige Cultural Center on Newton Street. But the Hunters are also a draw because of Casby’s reputation.

“He’s like the mayor of Algiers,” said his spyboy, Dow Michael Edwards, who said most other Indian tribes debut their suits in their own communities early on Mardi Gras Day and then travel across town to show off their suits uptown in Central City or downtown in the 6th and 7th wards.

Not the Mohawk Hunters. “Tyrone Casby made a commitment that Mohawk Hunters stay in Algiers all day on Mardi Gras Day,” Edwards said. “So people embrace him there.”

There are two kinds of chiefs in town, Edwards said. Some prefer to create almost a cult of personality around themselves. Others are more community-minded, seeking to reach out to neighborhood teens who need direction and to lead their tribes past the homes of older people who can’t get out anymore.

Casby is among the latter group. “A lot of young guys are caught up with the ‘I am chief’ phenomenon,” he said. “But you got guys as chiefs, it’s just them and one guy. That’s not a tribe.”

Mixing up sewing styles

Uptown Indians and 7th Ward Indians are known to have distinctly different approaches to sewing and constructing their yearly suits. Casby allows his tribe members to go where the spirit leads them, either sewing the narrative, storyline patches associated most often with Uptown tribes or creating the three-dimensional “monogram” suits seen throughout the 7th Ward.

Casby’s own chief’s suit is built with quills, or feathers, which downtown Indians also use, but he recently began using plumes like some Uptown tribes. He now adds 6-inch plumes to the end of each feather.

Like most large, traditional Indian tribes, the Mohawk Hunters have spyboys, flagboys, gangflags and wildmen. But they also have some traditional positions that other tribes no longer do, including a mossman, who protects the chief, like the wildman. And while the Skull and Bone Gangs and Baby Dolls have formed into separate groups unrelated to Indians on the other side of the river, in Algiers, the skeleton men and the Baby Dolls parade with the Mohawk Hunters.

Casby’s open-minded philosophy toward masking does not include shortcuts, however, as Edwards discovered when he asked Casby if he could use some of the chief’s older patches to create a suit for himself. Casby refused, insisting that Edwards sew his own suit.

Edwards didn’t think of himself as artistic and thought “there was no way in the world” he could create an entire Indian suit. Then four years ago, he started sewing. Initially, he pricked his hands with the needle so often that Edwards, a lawyer, could barely type at work.

As he sewed, though, he understood Casby’s insistence. “It’s a journey,” he said. “By the time I put the suit together, my mindset wasn’t in harmony with what the suit actually depicted.” For instance, the first patch he beaded was a murderous Indian-versus-Indian war scene, but by the time he’d finished sewing, he no longer felt that patch reflected his feelings about Indians, he said.

For this year’s suit, one of the most photographed and discussed suits of the year, Edwards paid homage to the African-American Buffalo Soldiers, creating a Native American war bonnet as a crown and sewing patches that showed the respect he found existed between the original Buffalo Soldiers and the Indians, even though the Buffalo Soldiers were part of the U.S. Army’s wars against the Indians in the 19th century.

Casby too has created patches about history and society. He showed relationships between Native Americans and African-Americans in a 2011 suit, and a much-discussed suit marked Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008 by depicting a black man on top of the world, coming out of the belly of the beast.

Showing off each year’s suits

Traditionally, Indians wore each suit only twice: on Mardi Gras Day and on the evening of March 19 for the Italian Lenten celebration, St. Joseph’s Night — when, that is, authorities allowed black New Orleanians to mask as Indians on that occasion, Casby said.

Although tribes were allowed to mask until 6 p.m. on Mardi Gras, he noted, until recently the St. Joseph’s Night tradition wasn’t acknowledged by city officials, so Indians often ended up being harassed by police or jailed. Indian tribes like his were likely to leave children at home on March 19 rather than subject them to intimidation and possible violence.

Around 30 years ago, various other Indian parades began cropping up. The most famous was probably Super Sunday, a daytime parade hosted for more than 20 years by the youth cultural group Tambourine and Fan on the Sunday closest to the St. Joseph’s celebration. That parade hasn’t been held since Hurricane Katrina, leaving an Uptown parade that was originally called “Indian Sunday” as the biggest Indian procession. It is now sometimes referred to as “Uptown Super Sunday.”

But for 20 years, West Fest has consistently been the public finale each year for local Mardi Gras Indians — or, as Casby likes to call it, “the culminating event.” The procession is part of a larger celebration that Casby started in 1984 with famed gospel singer Othello Baptiste, of Providence Baptist Church, who suggested that the two of them showcase the culture on their side of the river.

In the weeks that follow West Fest, some Indians will appear at Jazz Fest, but they’re seen only by ticketholders, not by the general public. And afterward, most Indians pack up their heavy suits for good. That’s not because of tradition but because of temperature. “It gets too hot,” Casby said.