Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson
Educator, Cultural Leader, Big Queen – Guardians of the Flame , Co-founder and Curator – Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame
From Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans:
I used to be an elementary school teacher in the New Orleans school system, and it was natural for me to incorporate indigenous traditions in the classroom for the 25 years that I taught. The Mardi Gras Indians cultural tradition and jazz music was a big part of my life growing up, my father was a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief, my siblings are jazz musicians, and I’ve spent years being involved in these traditions. My mother, who was a nursery school teacher, also had been incorporating indigenous traditions in the curriculum, so we’ve been doing this for a long time.
We’ve also known for a long time that enhancing the curriculum with indigenous New Orleans cultural traditions was a win-win situation since it helped our children get excited about academics, connect what they were learning to what they knew, and teach them the heritage and value of local customs. There was also the added benefit for the people who came in to share traditions, to help them become civically involved. I see it as a continuum of deepening and broadening our concept of teaching and enhancing the academic curriculum, specifically literacy, through authentic cultural traditions. ~Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson
Guardians of the Flame
Guardians of the Flame, Mardi Gras Indian Tribe is dedicated to preserving a more than century-old tradition that has been carried on exclusively in the New Orleans African American community.
The tradition of masquerading as Mardi Gras Indians has been carried on in the New Orleans African American community since the 1880s, although the exact origin is unknown. Participants attribute its origin to the African American / Native American bonds forged during the slavery era. During this time, local Native Americans welcomed, accepted, and sheltered run-away slaves. Because this humanitarianism was never forgotten, when African-Americans began to participate in the local tradition of masquerading, they chose to mask as Indians. This was a form of paying respect and homage for the assistance extended to them during the slavery era.
The music of the Mardi Gras Indians is poly-rhythmic. It has retained elements of West African layered drumming techniques and the call and response style of singing. The music of this tribe is innovative in that they incorporate the use of contemporary Jazz and African drums.
The earliest costumes were made with turkey feathers, bottle caps, ribbon, and sequins. Since the 1880s the costumes have evolved into the spectacular suits of ostrich plumes, rhinestones, seed beads, velvet, satin, etc. worn today.
The tribe’s costumes combine elements from Native American cultures with those of many African cultures – Yoruba, Zulu, Mali, and ancient Benin – to create a unique Afrocentric expression of their beautiful culture and heritage.
Guardians of the Flame, Mardi Gras Indian Tribe was organized by Donald Harrison, Sr. in 1988.They made their Mardi Gras debut on February 7,1989. Chief Donald began his involvement with the New Orleans Indian tradition in 1949 and over the next twenty years would become Big Chief of the Creole Wild West and White Eagle Tribes. The Guardians include three generations of Harrisons. Big Chief Donald is joined by his son, world jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr., his daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, his grand children, Brian Nelson, Christian and Kiel Scott, and Victoria Harrison to keep this tradition alive. Additional tribe members include extended family members and friends.
Mardi Gras Indian tradition has only recently received attention outside New Orleans, its importance as a cultural phenomenon of American history has been assured by many anthropologists. Their songs and unique rhythm patterns influenced many New Orleans rhythm and blues artists of the 1950s, creating a foundation for what was to become rock and roll. The Guardians of the Flame personify this special link to an obscured that is still vibrant today.