Big Chief Dowee Robair
Have you visited New Orleans and fallen in love with the city’s intoxicating mix of food, music and culture? The city is home to traditions—styles of art, cuisine, music and, yes, fashion—that cannot be found anywhere else. Nothing personifies this “only-in-NOLA” culture like the Mardi Gras Indians and their tradition of “masking.”
New Orleans’ African American community began dressing like Native Americans on Mardi Gras more than one hundred fifty years ago as a way to honor the Native Americans for their help hiding runaway slaves during the years before the Civil War.The centerpiece of Indian masking tradition is a costume or “suit,” as they call it. Each year the members of the various tribes spend a year making colorful designs with intricate beadwork and elaborate color schemes. Once completed, it comes together in a stunning and vivid mosaic to been seen at Mardi Gras, Super Sunday, St. Joseph’s Day and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Photographer Christy Bush sat down with Big Chief Dowee Robair, the head of the 9th Ward Black Hatchet, to learn more about masking, the suits, and Mardi Gras Indian traditions.
Christy: When did you make your first suit and who taught you how to sew?
Dowee: My stepfather, Richard Turner, who was the Wildman of the 9th Ward Warriors, taught me how to sew. I made my first suit at 24. I decided to sew and mask then because in the Lower 9th Ward a lot of the older guys were starting to quit sewing and fade into the background to become more of a support team for the tribes. I felt we needed young blood and energy to make sure the culture continued.
Christy: How old is your tribe, the 9th Ward Black Hatchets?
Dowee: My tribe is four years old and this is my fourth year running chief. Our tribe consists of Indians that have been masking since the 1960s. We are a tribe of elders, younger guys, women and kids. We are a young tribe by name only but the members are very seasoned. I have the largest tribe and the prettiest one in the city now.
Christy: What does it take to be a Mardi Gras Indian?
Dowee: To be an Indian, you have to sew! You have to pick up the needle and thread and you have to sew! You have to do your own beading, your own sequins work, your own rhinestone work. Whatever it is you use to sew, you have to do it yourself.
Christy: Sewing by hand?
Dowee: By hand, yes. Christy: Sewing by hand?
Dowee: I can’t really answer that, but for example I am working a feather that is 2 1/2 inches long and 1/2 wide and there are 178 beads in this tiny area alone! It starts with bare canvas that we draw images on and we bead the images.
Christy: How many feathers do you think you use per suit?
Dowee: Approximately 600 to 700 feathers.
Christy: How long does it take to make a suit? A year?
Dowee: I’m glad that you brought that up. Sometimes people like to focus on the amount of money we spend to make these suits. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a lot of money but it’s nothing compared to the amount of time that we put in to make these suits. Myself, I think I am one of the prettiest, hands down, and the amount of time that I put it sewing is the reason why. I sew like it’s a part time job in addition to going to my regular job. There is not a day of the week that goes by that I am not at the table sewing. I sew at least 4 – 6 hours a day. As it gets closer to Mardi Gras morning, the hours go up. There is very little sleep.
Christy: Do you consider yourselves artists?
Dowee: Of course, we are artists! We make art that can’t be duplicated even by ourselves. I do everything myself from start to finish. I begin by thinking of what colors I want to wear. I start with the feathers. I think about what rhinestones would pop out against the feathers. I think about the beads that will work with the rhinestones. I need the materials to contrast and complement each other so that the scenes and the designs I create can be seen clearly.
Christy: The suits are about competition–who makes the best suit?
Dowee: Yes! This is a very intense form of competition. First, we compete with ourselves to beat the last suit we created. We are very masculine men competing with each other to see who is the prettiest. The prettiest! We all want to be the prettiest. It’s about who has the best bead work, the best color schemes, and has been the most creative. I think that in itself, it’s just amazing to have a bunch of men competing to see who is the prettiest, in a world that is so violent. To have something like this going on is on a whole different level.
Christy: Where does the term who is the prettiest come from and why is it so important?
Dowee: I can’t really say where exactly it came from because this has been going on for over 150 years easily. I mean the suits are pretty! The crowds, the spectators, they tell you all the time, “You’re so pretty!”
Christy: How do you know who is the prettiest?
Dowee: The spectators decide. But you know. When you look into that other person’s eyes and they look into your eyes, you know who the prettiest is! And they know it! When you open your wings and show them your suit, the expression on their face tells you who won or lost. It’s like a fashion show when the runway models come out. It’s a sight to see.
Christy: What does masking mean to New Orleans?
Dowee: It brings us closer together, it gives us a reason to gather. When we put on the suits, people come from all over to see us. It brings neighbors together. People from all over come to see us.