BBC Celebrates NOLA: The Role of the Queen in Mardi Gras Indian Culture

BBC Celebrates NOLA: The Role of the Queen in Mardi Gras Indian Culture

Jazz Fest 2018, the Backstreet Cultural Museum Exhibit at Grandstand

If you were lucky enough to catch the recent exhibition Queens, Baby Dolls, and Social & Pleasure Clubs: Tradition and Rituals at the New Orleans Public Library in March, then you may already be familiar with Cherice Harrison-Nelson, or Queen Reesie. The daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr, she was born into Mardi Gras Indian culture and explains:

“It is a tradition of resistance. It is an homage to the mutual struggles of both African Americans and Native Americans on their quest for freedom, self-actualization, and self-expression in America.”

Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Queen Reesie

The history of Mardi Gras Indian tribes began shortly after the Emancipation and served to pay homage to Native Americans who sheltered enslaved persons on their way to freedom. There are approximately ninety tribes within the city today and they can be seen gathering in intricate, hand crafted beaded and feathered costumes. Their craftsmanship is legendary, and it can take a full year to make an Indian suit.

Women traditionally have taken part in the beading and sewing work which go into the costumes, but some women carve out a higher position for themselves within the community. Mardi Gras Indian culture is predominately male, but women can mask as Queens within their tribe. Cherice Harrison-Nelson after being initially refused by her father, became Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame through persistence.

Tribal Queen Littdell “Queen Bee” Banister of the Creole Wild West and Big Queen/ Maroon Queen Cherice “Reesie” Harrison-Nelson of

Queens can range in age from babies to over eighty years old. While some traditional attitudes suggest that a Queen is a just an accessory or embellishment to the Big Chief, others promote the role of Queen as an educator to the next generation, a peace keeper among tribes, and an instrument for community outreach. Cherice Harrison-Nelson, along with her mother Herreast Harrison and Dr. Roslyn Smith, cofounded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame to further and preserve the culture. She also promoted the Queen’s Choice award in 2005 to help recognize women in the community. Harrison-Nelson also takes an active role in a project called Queens Rule!, which was founded after Katrina by Tulane professor Rebecca Mark. The organization helps to promote the Queens role throughout New Orleans.

Big Queen Gina Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas and Fi-Yi-Yi Voodoo Baby Doll Indian Queen Resa

Big Queen Gina Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas says:

“It is very empowering for a young woman. To come out and be on front stage in your community, walking down Claiborne Avenue, walking down Orleans Avenue, and to say ‘This is my spirit, this is my creativity, this is my art form and I don’t have to show my flesh. I’m showing you my art.’ That takes the experience up to another level with cultural awareness and consciousness…”

Queens in Mardi Gras culture earn themselves the right to mask and gather with their male counterparts through leadership, craftsmanship, and preservation of their culture.