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  • Tribe on the move

    After being evacuated to Austin, Big Chief Kevin Goodman plans to rekindle the Flaming Arrows' Mardi Gras Indian tradition in his new Texas home

    Thursday, October 13, 2005
    By Keith Spera
    Music writer

    AUSTIN -- For more than a century, the Mardi Gras Indians have symbolized a unique New Orleans culture.

    On Fat Tuesday, the various tribes paraded through mostly African-American neighborhoods in elaborate Indian "suits," painstakingly sewn by hand for months on end. The Indian rhythms and chants passed down from one generation to the next inform and invigorate New Orleans music, from the Dixie Cups' 1965 smash "Iko Iko" to the Neville Brothers' catalog and beyond.

    Before Katrina, it was inconceivable that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition could take root anywhere other than the city of its birth.

    Post-Katrina, at least one Big Chief plans to rekindle that tradition in Austin.

    Big Chief Kevin Goodman leads the Flaming Arrows, the downtown Mardi Gras Indian tribe founded in 1963 by his father. For 43 of his 45 years, he has either "masked Indian" or participated in some other way. He has even nurtured his family tribe's third generation by masking his 5-year-old daughter, Kevon, and 6-year-old son, Dillon, with the Young Flaming Arrows.

    However, in the wake of Katrina and its hellish aftermath, "my spirit for Mardi Gras was just gone," Goodman said recently. "But after we got to Austin and folks started showing us love and giving us hugs and welcome, it made me want to give something back.

    "(My Mardi Gras spirit) is coming back more and more. When you already have something in your soul and heart, it's not hard to get it back."

    Goodman grew up in the 7th Ward, "back o' town" near the intersection of Frenchmen and North Rocheblave streets. His father, Theodore "Big Chief Merk" Goodman, established the Flaming Arrows in that neighborhood. After his father died in 1996, Kevin Goodman took over leadership of the tribe.

    He was working as a house painter and living in an apartment in eastern New Orleans when Katrina struck. The apartment flooded. He retreated to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, enduring several days without supplies or official aid.

    "Our bodies were torn down spiritually, mentally, physically. We were drained. We were left for dead," he said.

    "My brains were about to burst. It was so sad. No food, no water, elderly people without medicine. I wouldn't want anybody to go through that."

    A helicopter finally transported him to Louis Armstrong International Airport, where he boarded a chartered flight to Austin.

    "I didn't know I was going to Austin," he said. "At the airport, they said, 'FEMA is going to fly you to Austin.' "

    After arriving in the Texas capital, he and other evacuees bunked in a makeshift shelter at the Austin Convention Center.

    "Coming from the Convention Center in New Orleans to the Convention Center in Austin, it was like coming from hell to heaven," Goodman said. "We had everything we needed -- water, food, shelter. All the people in Austin have shown us a lot of love and made us feel at home."

    During the two weeks he spent at the shelter, he orchestrated a second-line parade. The day of the parade, Lola Stephens, co-owner of the East Austin soul food restaurant Nubian Queen Lola's Cajun Kitchen, was volunteering at the Convention Center. She invited Goodman, along with other displaced musicians, to stage a benefit for themselves at her restaurant on Sept. 11.

    He also picked up gigs at the Continental Club and networked with locals through the Austin Music Co-op. On Sept. 26 he joined Cyril Neville and an Austin/New Orleans amalgamation at Antone's, the famed downtown blues club. Goodman contributed background harmonies and tambourine to "Big Chief," "Let's Go Get 'Em" and other Big Easy standards, as female members of the Flaming Arrows danced in front of the stage.

    "They say this is a place for music lovers, and so far we're fitting right in with all the musicians," Goodman said. "We're trying to make Austin our home."

    He has moved into an apartment near the University of Texas, subsidized by aid organizations. Come February, he does not expect to lead the Flaming Arrows through the streets of the 7th Ward. "New Orleans is not going to be ready," he said. "Time is too short."

    Instead, he's planning to relaunch the Flaming Arrows in Texas.

    "We'll parade in Austin," he said. "All the people that came to see us in New Orleans can come see us in Austin. They say they have a small Mardi Gras here. We're going to make it big.

    "We're trying to get the New Orleans vibe and keep the flame in Texas. If we can pull off Mardi Gras in Austin, New Orleans is in trouble."

    He hopes to flesh out the Flaming Arrows -- only his Spy Boy, Second Chief and two of the tribe's queens have joined him so far in Texas -- with new recruits.

    "It doesn't matter the race, creed, religion," he said. "I'll be teaching classes on sewing . . . . I'll be educating people on the lyrics, the dancing, the culture."

    His Indian suits, like those of other downtown tribes, sport elaborate geometric designs rendered with feathers, beads and sequins; two of Goodman's old costumes, including the red one he wore in 2003, are on display at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme. One may be part of a New Orleans culture exhibit planned for the Voodoo Music Experience, which organizers moved from City Park to Memphis on Halloween weekend.

    The floodwaters in eastern New Orleans destroyed the purple, green and gold suit he'd begun sewing for Mardi Gras '06. He plans to craft his Austin suit in a different color.

    "Since this is the first time in Austin, I may do a white suit, or a light lavender," he said. "A fresh start. Clean."

    He's also putting down Austin roots in another way. During a break at Antone's, he wrapped an arm around Annie Jenkins, his girlfriend and a Flaming Arrows queen.

    "She's got a little chief in here, a papoose," he said, rubbing her belly. "He's going to be born in Austin."
    May the Great Spirit's blessings always be with you.

  • #2
    Mardi Gras is full of secrets, and the Mardi Gras Indians are as much a part of that secret society as any other carnival organization.

    You know it's not like it's real natives or a real tribe doing this right?
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


    • #3
      NO, but it's no different than Outkast going on stage playing "indian" dress-up either.


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