Tuesday, July 12, 2005

July 10 ~ Funeral for a Chief ~ Photos and Article By Ian McNulty

This spring there was a bad rumble between the police and Mardi GrasIndians during a traditional nighttime gathering of the brightlycostumed maskers near one of the city's housing projects. Meetings werecalled to talk down the situation in the aftermath, including a hearingbefore the City Council in late June. One of the speakers from theIndian camp was Big Chief Tootie Montana, age 82, the most prominentand beloved of the Indian chiefs and known in his circles as the chiefof chiefs. Surrounded by supporters, he began an impassioned speech tothe City Council about the need to ease the tension between cops andthe community. He said "I want this to stop," then collapsed to thefloor and a short while later was pronounced dead at Charity Hospital.Heart attack.

Mourning rituals by the Indians and others began almost immediately.This weekend was his actual funeral. On Friday night he laid in stateat the city's opera hall, the Mahalia Jackson Theater, for visitationand Saturday morning a service was held at St. Augustine church in theTreme. Thousands gathered outside the church for the jazz funeralprocession to the cemetery. There was a brass band, with musiciansattired in traditional caps, shirts and ties, and what looked to beevery Mardi Gras Indian in the city turned out in their feathers andjewels. Naturally, the heat was broiling and even people in lightclothing were dripping sweat. The streets around the church were packedfor blocks around by onlookers and the area was buzzing with MardiGras-like energy. There was zero sadness expressed. The air was allbody scents, tropical blossoms from front gardens and wafting dopeclouds. Men were selling beers and mixed cocktails from tailgates,women hawking sweet potato pies and pralines from baskets held overtheir heads in the crowd. People were wearing hats decorated withclippings Montana's newspaper obituary.

The coffin emerges from the church and Indian whoops and tambourinerattles light up. The coffin is pushed into a black, horse-drawn hearsecarriage with a tuxedoed driver at the reins. The brass band sets up adirge and every one creeps forward with exaggeratedly slow steps as theprocession begins. The pace is miniscule, step by step in the blazing,crowded heat. Around the hearse, Indians and others in zoot suit paradefinery and ornate sashes chant and sing. The brass band picks it up alittle with "Didn't He Ramble" and "I'll Fly Away" as the processioncrosses under the bloodstream pattern of oak limbs lacing overEsplanade Avenue. Continuing through the Sixth Ward, shade disappearsand the heat intensifies. People run into corner bars and run out againwith beers and napkins to mop brows. Dancers and mourners wearing suitsare soaked to the lapels in sweat. Jostled in the crowded smallstreets, people bump into parked jalopies and burn themselves on thesun-sizzling steel. Dressy parasols and plain black umbrellas sproutup.

The procession makes a brief stop at Montana's home and loops around beneath the elevated interstate en route to the cemetery, St. Louis No.2, a walled and crumbling city of the dead fronting the Iberville housing project. The hearse clops slowly down the cemetery's main thoroughfare, past all the brick vaults and whitewashed tombs. The rotting smell of the recently interred is evident. People are crawling onto tombs of various heights and packing into the slim alleys between them to get a look at the coffin leaving the hearse, carried by soaking wet pallbearers to a tomb recently opened for the chief's arrival. He goes in, and last words are spoken, the Catholic lord's prayer recited. A kid falls from a tomb in a crumble of bricks and dusts himself off. Mourners pass by, placing a hand on the coffin inside the tomb and,when they're done, two workers from the archdiocese haul out a bucketof mortar and tools and wall in the coffin one aged brick at a time. Everyone disperses back through the Treme, where a repass reception is waiting in the community center. The criminal sheriff has sprung for lunch and at either end of the center's indoor basketball court twodozen prisoners wearing "O.P.P. Inmate" T-shirts spoon out bowls of redbeans roped thickly with sausage over rice, overseen by armed deputies. Around this time in the afternoon it became certain that Hurricane Dennis and its 130 mph winds would strike somewhere else along the GulfCoast, sparing New Orleans once more.

Some pictures of the above are below.

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