Mardi Gras' Masking Indians: Filmmaker Jonathan Isaac Jackson on the Culture of New Orleans

By WORLD Channel

Who are the Mardi Gras Indians – and who should tell their story? In the season 11 premiere of America ReFramed, Big Chief, Black Hawk, director and New Orleans native Jonathan Isaac Jackson shares a historical and cultural account of the ritual of masking from the point of view of the youngest Mardi Gras Big Chief.

"We wanted to highlight culture in New Orleans, but specifically from an African American perspective and a local perspective," Jackson said.

Big Chief, Black Hawk is imbued with the sights and sounds of the city, exploring how its tribes navigated COVID-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while touching upon prevailing social issues of gentrification and housing.

In an exclusive interview, Jackson shares what he sought to convey about the Mardi Gras Masking Indians and how, through his film, he hopes to forge a truer understanding of the Black community in New Orleans.

WORLD Channel: How does your identity play a role in the making of Big Chief, Black Hawk?

Jonathan Isaac Jackson: My background has shaped me into the filmmaker that I am because it has allowed me to have a unique look at American life and Black culture. Over the course of my career, I felt it was important to tell a story, but now I feel like it's more important to add my identity into the story. It ensures that whatever I'm documenting involves a look at who I'm making this film about. The tools that I've utilized to explore my own self, identity and culture is the pathway to explore anybody else's culture. It’s important to pinpoint and understand who you are before you start figuring out who anyone else is.

When I first ventured into [making this film], I was trying to ensure that there wasn't an appropriation aspect. As a Black male in America, we're appropriated a lot...I wanted to ensure that the Mardi Gras Indians weren’t. After that, it became about meeting these kids and having these conversations. I was learning about [them] and what they do inside and outside of the culture, and supporting them and having them support me. 

WC: Why did you decide to approach the story of the Mardi Gras Indian culture?

JIJ: Growing up [in New Orleans] and becoming a filmmaker, I always felt that the culture, when it was presented, was presented through a lens that wasn't accurate. Outside of one filmmaker, who I know is a Big Chief, these films were made by white males. 

Mardi Gras has two different aspects to it: There's the version that most people see, and then there's the version that a lot of people actually experience. And that is the Mardi Gras Indians and the connection to the African culture we have in New Orleans and our connections to Indigenous people.

"Is this appropriation?" It's not, because it has been proven that there were African slaves and Native Americans who intermarried, so a lot of African Americans have Native American blood. It's not appropriation. To see somebody who's not Black dressed up as a Mardi Gras Indian was something I was afraid that I would see within the next decade, so I wanted to see if there was some way it could be documented and explained. But it's not an end-all, be-all explanation – if you want to know more about the history of Mardi Gras Indians, come to New Orleans or talk to a Mardi Gras Indian. 

People are moving away from New Orleans, and people are moving into New Orleans that aren't affiliated with the culture. One of the big things I was looking at and thinking about is the idea that, at some point, we would see white tribes. I was trying to figure out how to document or tell a story where it's understood how connected to our ancestors this tradition truly is. It's a way of saying, "We don't want you to not dress up as a Mardi Gras Indian because you're not Black. We want you to respect the fact that you shouldn't want to dress up as a Mardi Gras Indian because it's associated with Black culture and its roots go back all the way back to Africa." 

I had to look for something that was a little bit deeper than a Mardi Gras Indian film; I had to look for substance and connection. I was making a film that was real to me. It wasn't necessarily about Tee [or] me; it was about the culture, but also about how we're interconnected with it. 

WC: What was something that surprised you during the making of?

JIJ: Getting to know Tee, getting to see Tee suited up and ready to go out on Mardi Gras day. It was euphoric…I saw a 16-year-old kid turn into somebody that was almost like an old soul. It was literally seeing a transformation. 

I wasn't somebody who was into anything that involved ancestor-spirit talk. After seeing Tee in that situation, all of that changed. Now, I am somebody who feels that I am guided by ancestors. Anytime I see these kids suit up, or I was around any Mardi Gras Indian situation, I'm entranced and engulfed in this idea of ancestors and being able to communicate with [them], and looking at how this tradition is a way of passing down stories through generations.

It’s this idea of us being taken away from our homeland in bondage, but having all these sounds, suits and words that are calling back out to our ancestors to either let them know where we are or find our way back home. I think that's something that people don't notice, but something they know about, something that I now know about, and something that is spread off across the [African] diaspora. That was the most special thing that I got out of documenting Tee, Fat Man and Ty [Tee’s younger brothers and fellow tribesmen]. It stayed with me throughout the production, and it's still with me now.

WC: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

JIJ: We're trying to connect with an audience. We know who we're speaking to, and we're not trying to do anything else outside of having a conversation with [them]. We're hoping that whoever watches [Big Chief, Black Hawk] has some type of connection to it. We hope that it's entertaining, but I hope they can understand a little bit more about the culture and give a lot more respect to the people who are continuing this oral tradition that comes from generations ago.

Over time, people will come back to it, and it will give people what they need for the small amount of time that they need it for – the understanding of who we are. It’s this time and space of how we dealt with a pandemic and got through it, and how we dealt with gentrification and hopefully get through that. We're trying to provide root work to how we, as a people, can be better, be more connected, more understood. I'm hoping that the film is a small piece of that.

Watch Jonathan’s interview, now streaming on YouTube:
Big Chief, Black Hawk is now streaming online, on YouTube & on the PBS app.

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