Big Chief Monk Boudreaux at La Fête de Marquete:
A New Orleans Tradition
By Jonathan Gramling
If you have ever been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, chances are you’ve seen Big Chief Monk
Boudreaux leading a tribe of Black Mardi Gras Indians in a parade that winds through the
neighborhoods of New Orleans and goes down Canal Street on the edge of the French Quarter.
Boudreaux adorns himself in an Indian outfit that he created himself. While many of the Black Mardi
Gras Indians trace part of their heritage to the Choctaw Indians who once resided in Louisiana and
Mississippi, it is difficult to authenticate how much of what they do is rooted in the Choctaw culture.
Yet, Boudreaux is proud of his Native ancestry.
“We are the only ones who kept the tradition going in New Orleans,” Boudreaux said after he
performed with an all-star line-up at La Fête de Marquette. “But we have Choctaw Indians all over
Louisiana because I met a little girl. I was doing a speech for some kids from Colorado. And this little
Black girl walked up to me and said, ‘Say Chief, I’m Choctaw Indian too.’ That’s how I know.
“There are a lot of them with Choctaw in them up there. My old lady, her momma is Choctaw Indian.
We never knew. It’s there and it is all over New Orleans. But all over Louisiana, we are the only ones
who keep the traditions on because we were taught to keep it going. And we teach our kids and
grandkids. As soon as they are able to walk, talk and crawl, we bring them out there.”
Back in the early 1960s, Boudreaux wanted to join the White Eagles, one of the New Orleans tribes.
In essence, he had to learn to walk before he could run.
“I wanted to mask Indian because my dad masked Indian before me,” Boudreaux said about wanting
to mask, dress in a self-made Indian outfit. “I was 12 years old and the only way I could mask was I
had to learn how to sew. I went on and then I started sewing. They had a tribe called the White Eagles, one of the biggest tribes in New Orleans,
one of the oldest tribes. My dad had stopped masking. He said, ‘Son, you have to sew if you want to mask.’ He wasn’t doing it anymore. So I went
over to one of the first flag boy’s houses who was staying right across the street from me. I told him, ‘Look man, I’ve got to mask.’ He said, ‘You’ve
got to sew.’ And I started sewing.”
Boudreaux had to pay his dues to be a part of the White Eagles.
“I was like a runner,” Boudreaux said. “If I’m sitting by his house sewing and he is needing something, he will send me to get it. And I have to go
get it and bring it back. I might have to go 7-8 blocks to get what he needs because he can’t stop. He had to keep going. He taught me how to sew
and I sewed. In my first year, I was a chief’s scout. I didn’t do too good. But I was out there. When you are watching Indians, you can tell who did
their homework when you look at them. I started looking around and thought that I didn’t look too good. So I waited until the next year. The next
year, I put it down. And I had everything that I needed. I mastered the job and then they turned me over from a chief’s scout to second spy boy. Spy
boy is something like they are most likely to run the whole tribe for the chief because he is first.”
The parades led by the Mardi Gras Indians are very organized and can stretch for many blocks. Different members are assigned different tasks and
positions to ensure that the parade stays together and tight and that no other group interferes with the parade.
“The first spy boy runs it down from the front,” Boudreaux said. “And we have signals. We might be a quarter to a half mile apart. And we had
signals. And the first spy boy is the one who gets the signals from the beginning. I’m going to make a long story short. I was second spy boy for two
years. And then the big chief retired. And he sent it down to the first spy boy. And the first spy boy didn’t want it, so he gave it to the first flag boy.
The first flag boy took it for two years and then he gave it to the first spy boy. They were getting old and I was still young. In the 1960s, they asked
me if I wanted to be the big chief. I said, ‘Yeah.’ So they handed it down to me and I’ve been carrying it ever since. Now they have a lot of guys in
New Orleans coming up now who say they are a chief. They aren’t a chief. They just say they are a chief. It has to be handed down and you have to
be on it.”
Each chief has to be a leader and a musician. During the raucous time of Mardi Gras, it is the chief who maintains order.
“Being a chief during the Mardi Gras season is an honor because a chief’s job is to make sure that everything is right,” Boudreaux said. “He
watches everything because a long time ago, it was kind of hard for us, you know. If there was any trouble or breakdown on the street and the
Indians are around, they’re going to say, ‘It was the Indians.’ But it wasn’t. That’s what they said. We have to keep the standards high. A drunken
Indian is the worse Indian in the world. Well a drunken anybody is the worse in the world. I make sure it is cool because all of my kids and
grandkids are out there and I want to make sure they are safe.”
He also needs to know how to sing.
“We got into the music in the 1970s,” Boudreaux recalled. “A friend of ours you might now, Quint Davis who runs the jazz fest, came by when he
was going to college. He came to our practice, what we call Indian practice. He said, “You guys know that y’all are making music that no one
nowhere else in the world makes?’ And we recorded a record. And we’ve been recording ever since.
In practice, everyone sings. We like rotate it. If I had an Indian practice and another chief comes in, he would take over. And then another chief and
he would take over. You have to be a singing chief. The chief has to know everything. The music styles are all mixed up. That’s why they call it
gumbo. It’s all mixed up. But I think I’m the only one who can do it all.”
Boudreaux is a living legend.