Alison ‘Tootie’, Montana was born on December 16, 1922.
An accomplished construction worker in the city, he is best known as
the long time Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian
gang. His construction of costumes brought him worldwide acclaim. He
died dramatically in 2005 after addressing the New Orleans City Council
about the Mardi Gras Indian culture.
Mardi Gras Indians are one of New Orleans’ most exciting cultural
expressions. The Creole Wild West began in the late 1800’s in
the seventh ward neighborhood identified in old New Orleans maps as La
Nouvelle Marigny, or New Marigny located roughly between St. Claude,
St. Bernard, and Elysian Fields Avenues. As members from the Creole
Wild West migrated about the city, new gangs emerged, and tribes took
root in other downtown wards, and uptown across Canal Street. Unlike
the pomp and formality of other Mardi Gras offerings, the Mardi Gras
Indians have no publicized route, handbooks, or by-laws. Yet, their
lightning-quick appearances can generate more electricity than the
Rex and Zulu parades combined. Their breathtaking hand-stitched costume
artistry draws accolades from visitors around the world. Indeed, there
is nothing quite as photogenic as a Yellow Pocahontas against a clear
blue Mardi Gras sky. Each of the approximately thirty-five New Orleans’ Mardi
Gras Indian tribes are themselves a social family fostering unity,
sense of purpose, loyalty, and transmission of culture.
Tootie Montana’s father, Alfred Montana worked as a sign painter
and a baker. With a mastery of wedding cakes, he baked violin-shaped
treats complete with strings and operated a pie shop on St. Claude
near St. Anthony. When Tootie was about eight years old, Alfred made
a costume for his older brother Edward. “In those days everything
was the big brother”, Tootie recalled. But that next year,
Alfred constructed a new red suit for Edward and Tootie became the
proud wearer of the pink suit his brother wore the year before. That
suit and the Mardi Gras Indian culture imprinted a bond with his father
that became dormant after his parents separated. Tootie entered the
building trades in New Orleans. His work ethic permeated his jobs as
a helper at Valena C. Jones School, a roofer with Arnold Walter, and
finally a skilled metal and wire lather. “Pay me ten dollars,
and I’ll give you twenty dollars of work”, he would
say. He constructed the frames for arches on some of the city’s
most prominent structures.
After World War II ended, Tootie, now in his early twenties, returned
home to New Orleans after working in California. The Mardi Gras Indian
memories of his boyhood remained with him. In 1947, when he found out
that Alfred Montana was to be Chief over an Indian gang in the eighth
ward, Tootie ventured uptown to his father’s house at Saint Andrew
near Barrone Street with Carnival day only three weeks away. Tootie
joined with Chief Alfred Montana as the 8th Ward Hunters made their
1947 trek through the city. That was Alfred Montana’s last year
masking Indian. For Tootie, it was the beginning of an immersion in
the Indian culture that lasted half of a century.
In 1948, Robert Guidry led the 8th Ward Hunters Mardi Gras Indian
gang. That year, the tribe counted 37 Indians and was the biggest gang
Tootie had ever seen. After the Yellow Pocahontas stopped masking,
Tootie resurrected their name for his tribe. In 1952, with Tootie as
Chief, the Monogram Hunters became the Yellow Pocahontas as many of
the 8th Ward Hunters joined them. He recalled the culture’s joy
“That Sunday when Carnival’s getting closer, we come
from practice in a car. We get out that car playing tambourine, doing
our number all in the street and thing. I used to love that.”
Tootie led the gang that Mardi Gras Day. For 50 years thereafter,
he became the foremost Mardi Gras Indian, and set a new standard for
costume design and decoration. In the sixties and seventies the Tambourine
and Fan organization united the Indians around cultural themes. Costume
artistry became the way to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
It was now who was the “prettiest”. Tootie Montana applied
construction techniques of balance and proportion to costume design.
His work ethic, competitiveness, and tribal pride staved off the fiercest
challengers to those who attempted to outdo him.
Tootie Montana has brought the Mardi Gras Indian culture to the world.
He was a National Endowment for the Arts recipient; he has been honored
by President Reagan and the Smithsonian, and was gloriously celebrated
at the New Orleans Museum of Art on his 50th year. He pioneered three-dimensional
costumes, elaborate crowns, and beautiful processions. He recently
received a lifetime achievement award for his contributions as an artisan
from the City of New Orleans. Every Mardi Gras, people from the community
gathered on North Villere Street to await his descent from what he
called those “little narrow stairs”.
Tootie Montana died on June 27, 2005. He suffered heart failure after
addressing the New Orleans City Council in a strong affirmation for
the preservation of the Mardi Gras Indian culture.
Copyright © 2005 Keith
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