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Guardians of the Flame

Upholding community traditions
and teaching with art in New Orleans

by Cherice Harrison-Nelson
New Orleans, Louisiana

Guardians of the Flame

Guardians of the Flame - New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians. (Back row, left to right) Cherice (Big Queen) Harrison-Nelson, Donald (Big Chief) Harrison Sr., Brian Nelson. (Front row) Kiel and Christian Scott, Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke. To see larger version - click here.

Growing up as the daughter of a nursery school director and a Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief had an indelible effect on me. Today, I carry on the legacy of both parents as an elementary school teacher and Big Queen of my father's tribe - Guardians of the Flame.

Guardians of the Flame, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians

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.

Haley Story Quilt Project

Currently, I am the lead teacher of the Haley Story Quilt Project. I conceived the idea along with my mother, Herreast Johnson Harrison, in the late 1980s. We wanted to create a work of art combining traditions from the Harrison and Johnson sides of our family. My maternal grandmother, Mattie Pendleton Pryor Johnson, who is 98 years young, is a fourth generation quilter. She began quilting as a young girl of only seven years old with her great grandmother, grandmother and mother. Originally the intent was to depict important events in our family.

The idea was put on hold until 1994 when the Guardians became a partner in Junebug Productions, Inc.'s Environmental Justice Project. In 1996 the principal of Oretha Castle Haley School, Roslyn J. Smith (currently on sabbatical to complete her Ph.D. studies), embraced and expanded the concept of creating a beaded quilt with art work on the theme, Environmental Justice, from my class.

Realizing the educational possibilities of the project she decided it should be a school-wide, two year long project with opportunities for parental involvement. Later, the writing and music components were added.and the "Haley Suite," to be composed by my brother Jazz saxophone sensation, Donald Harrison, Jr., were added.

Under the guidance of Haley's new principal, Sonya Oliver-Williams the project had a very successful kick-off on August 31, 1996 with the presentation of "How Come You 're So Stuck Up? by Junebug Productions.

The goal of the Story Quilt Project is to encourage students to tell their stories in a variety of ways - written prose, poetry, journal writing, song, dance, beading and drawing. The project is multi-phased.

During the first phase, jazz saxophone sensation Donald Harrison Jr, (Junebug Productions composer-in-residence, and my brother) will visit each class during the 1996-97 school session. Each month will be dedicated to a different grade level. Mr. Harrison will present lessons on the ways in which music can be used to tell a story or relay an emotion. He will also write a suite of music tentatively titled The Haley Suite. The piece will be premiered at the end of the school year.

The second phase will involve the journal writing component. Students will maintain a journal on the theme, Environmental Justice. Students will be encouraged to write and draw pictures concerning various environmental concerns which impact their daily existence. Not only will students write about their concerns, hopefully they will be inspired to take positive actions to improve their surroundings (anti-violence, anti-litter and recycling campaigns).

Student writings will be bound into class books and gold stamped with the teacher and students' names. Each class volume will become part of a school set which will be housed in the school's library. This collection of writings will be representative of each student and teacher at Haley School.

The third phase will be the creation of a beaded quilt using the beading techniques of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. Student generated drawings on their environmental concerns will be beaded by teachers, students and parents with guidance and assistance from Guardians of the Flame tribe members. The completed quilt will be permanently displayed in the school's art gallery.

Further information about the Haley Story Quilt Project may be obtained by calling Cherice Harrison-Nelson at (504) 942-1780.

Cherice Harrison-Nelson lives and works in New Orleans. Her recent projects and accomplishments include: Summer 1994 - Fulbright Scholarship to Senegal and Ghana; cadre member of the New Orleans Public School's Africana Studies Cadre; school site Multi-Cultural Studies lead teacher; Project Director of the Haley Story Quilt Project; site Chairperson of - Jazz Awareness Month (October) and African/African-American Month; Master's Degree from Xavier University - May 1996; conceived and developed a Jazz studies curriculum for elementary level students which is currently in use in over forty schools in Southeast Louisiana; annually facilitates a teacher's workshop on Jazz Awareness Month.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 8, 1996.

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