Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

Big Chief, Pink Suit

story by Sheila Sarhangi

The night before Mardi Gras, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux doesn’t sleep. He sits in his New Orleans apartment feverishly sewing bead after bead to an elaborate suit that will transform him into a Mardi Gras Indian. The work has taken months. And Boudreaux isn’t bashful about his artistic skill—just ask him about his suit’s velvet ruffles. “I’m the Ruffle King,” he says with a N’awlins drawl. “You can’t make them ruffles like me.”

Around 9 a.m. he slips on his 50-plus-pound suit, a long, black-haired wig and a feathered headpiece nearly 7 feet tall. He marches the streets of the Big Easy with his Golden Eagles tribe, meeting other Indians to dance, chant and compete in a best-dressed contest.

Boudreaux, though, is the chief of chiefs. The head honcho. The big kahuna. He earned his creds in his late twenties, and now, at 66, he’s one of the oldest and longest-running chiefs in the Crescent City. It’s a rank that’s highly respected in New Orleans, since many feel that the Indians embody the spirit of the city and of Mardi Gras itself.

This Halloween, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux will make his first visit to Honolulu—and he’s bringing his tambourine, pink suit and the spirit of Mardi Gras with him. You can hear him, singing alongside swamp rock artist Papa Mali at this year’s inaugural Hallowbaloo Music & Arts Festival party on Nu‘uanu Avenue, in the Honolulu Arts District. Other street performances include New Orleans singer-songwriter phenom Brett Dennen and indie band The Helio Sequence.

It’s not certain when African-Americans began “masking” themselves as Native Americans,
but a 1735 painting depicts a tribe of Choctaw Indians standing around a camping site in Louisiana with an African-American boy in native dress. It’s likely that the bond was forged when Native Americans aided runaway slaves; Boudreaux’s grandmother was part Choctaw.

“For a long time we were a hidden culture,” he says, adding that the Mardi Gras Indian
tradition is a way to honor those Native Americans. “Mardi Gras was the only day that we could come out and be who we really were.”

Boudreaux’s advice to Honolulu’s Halloween revelers: “Tell them to put their dancing shoes on.” HH

Hallowbaloo Music & Arts Festival