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From the publisher
As early as the 1700s, African Americans in New Orleans masqueraded as Native Americans in honor of the refuge local tribes offered runaway slaves in the bayous of New Orleans, and of bonds of friendship and marriage forged between these peoples. By the Civil War, the identity of New Orleans had been cast in the crucible of the city’s singular Mardi Gras celebration— one that consolidated the power of white ruling elites, a tradition that continued long after Emancipation. But by the 1880s, New Orleans’ African Americans had organized themselves into Mardi Gras Indian tribes or gangs that “masked Indian,” and often fought pitched battles on Mardi Gras day. In the atmosphere of post-Reconstruction’s injustices and hypocrisies, “masking Indian” was an implicit civil rights protest aimed at white elites and at segregation, in keeping with New Orleans’ carnivalesque spirit.
The feature-length documentary, TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT explores the complex relationships, rituals, history, and music of New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras Indian culture while telling the story of Allison “Tootie” Montana, former Chief of Yellow Pocahontas Hunters. Celebrated throughout the New Orleans as “the prettiest,” for the beauty and inventiveness of his elaborately beaded Mardi Gras costumes, Tootie Montana masked for 52 years, longer than any other Mardi Gras Indian.
Yet Tootie Montana’s contributions to Mardi Gras Indian culture far exceed his artistic innovations and dedication. Through the example of his own achievement, he came to be revered for turning Mardi Gras Indians away from gang-style violence toward artistic accomplishment and competition.
When Tootie retired in 1997 from the painstaking labor of creating a new Mardi Gras suit each year, he conferred the title of Chief on his son Darryl Montana. Pressured by his fans, and possessed of an unflagging imagination and artistic will to create, Tootie committed himself to making a Mardi Gras comeback in 2004. As he completes his last Mardi Gras Indian suit, and decides to parade alone, lifelong conflicts erupt between Tootie and Darryl. Though deeply personal, this father-son rivalry speaks to the issue of how traditional cultures are preserved, and how they are continuously re-interpreted. TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT is not just about Tootie’s passing on the baton, but also about the difficulty of letting it go, as well as the distinct possibility that the baton will be dropped. While it is Tootie Montana’s voice that predominates, much of his story is told and seen from the points-of-view of his son Darryl, the various chiefs who are both his rivals and admirers, and others connected to the culture, including Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John.
A year after Tootie Montana and Darryl Montana appear for the last time together in Mardi Gras Indian suits, New Orleans police shut down the annual Mardi Gras Indian celebration of St. Joseph’s night on the pretense that the Indians did not have a parade permit. TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT chronicles the police violence that erupts that night, and its tragic aftermath.
When a City Council hearing was called to address the St. Joseph’s night attacks on June 27th, 2005, Chief Tootie Montana was invited to speak first. In the packed council chambers he recounts the police brutality he and his tribe members had endured over the years. While appealing for a halt to police violence, Chief Tootie Montana is stricken with a heart attack. At age 82, he died on the floor of the council chambers.
Two months later, Hurricane Katrina struck. In the wake of the hurricane and the levees’ breach, when thousands of African Americans were abandoned by public officials to suffer, and to die, Chief Tootie Montana’s testimony echoes as a prophetic premonition of how Katrina would lay bare before the world the extremities of racism in America.
In the aftermath of Katrina, TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT bears witness to the Mardi Gras Indians who, in picking up the threads of their torn lives and tradition, are the spiritual healers of New Orleans.