Saturday night I went to Chalmette to see “Bury the Hatchet” a new film by a talented filmmaker named Aaron Walker. According to their website (http://www.burythehatchetfilm.com) “Bury The Hatchet features three Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs in a dynamic portrait of the unique and endangered culture of New Orleans they represent as bearers of tradition, as artists and as musicians.” The site goes on to describe these descendants of runaway slaves given safe harbor by the Native American communities in the bayous of Louisiana. Practitioners of a tradition that is hundreds of year old, individuals sew elaborate costumes resembling those Native American traditions and participate parades that wind their way through the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras day singing traditional songs. These intricate traditions contribute another layer to New Orleans’ already rich musical vernacular. The filmmakers describe following these men through the streets, saying “We get to experience the vulnerability of the black community in New Orleans, from the destruction of middle class African-American neighborhoods to make way for an interstate highway, to the violence that once defined their culture, to police crackdowns, the reality of aging and death, and finally the absolute devastation of their community following Hurricane Katrina. While the Chiefs differ in many ways, their need to pass on their traditions drives all three men as they give schoolbooks to children, teach the craft of sewing and song, tell stories and give advice, and generally serve as informal leaders in their communities.”
I was impressed and moved by “Bury the Hatchet.” I found it to be poignant and remarkable; especially due to the long time period that it tracked (Aaron Walker started filming in 2004, pre-Katrina and continued filming until 2009.) Mr. Walker did an amazing job weaving the stories of the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs into the lore of New Orleans, pre and post Katrina, drawing the audience into their tales until we felt a part of the rich culture that makes up the Mardi Gras Indians parades, as well as the amazing larger and ever-changing history of New Orleans.
I watched this film with friends and quickly realized who got the message of this sweet film and who it was wasted upon; one stated that she did not like the film, felt it was derivative, and that she could simply “not understand why, when the people portrayed in the film lived in such ‘abject poverty’ (her words not mine) that they would spend $10,000 on making a new suit each year.” I vehemently objected to her comments and told her that the suits and everything that went into making them, was what made each person involved feel as if their life had meaning and value; their individual raison d’etre, if you will. Another friend echoed my words, and the first woman muttered that she still did not get it, before falling silent. Yes, she did not “get it.” That was evident.
The trip home felt long and tedious, as if all the joy I had felt while watching the film had been diluted by those words. The joyful and simple message reminding us that every life has value seeped away into evening darkness. So I put the film away for a day or so and I re-watched “Treme”. Thanks to that wonderful series, I was able to renew the joy that I had originally experienced in initially watching “Bury the Hatchet.”
Thanks to the wonderful cinematography and skills of Aaron Walker, I was privy to an inner circle of a small group whose culture is intimately intertwined with the history of New Orleans, past and present. To understand the Mardi Gras Indian culture, you need to also understand the history of New Orleans; pre-Katrina, post Katrina, pre-antebellum, post antebellum, during times of slavery, and times after slavery had been abolished — slavery played a pervasive role in the history of New Orleans. Indeed the history of the Mardi Gras Indians and the black culture of New Orleans is integral to the distinct culture and history that makes New Orleans the unique and fascinating place that it is. Even with all its blemishes, when this complex cultural layering is set in context, as it is in the documentary Bury the Hatchet, one begins to see why New Orleans remains such a powerful spiritual place, and, indeed, why New Orleans exists at all.
Another amazing part of the movie is the music that was contributed to it. George Winston scored several songs for Bury the Hatchet, including “The Old Professor“, a take on the minor-keyed version of “Big Chief” that Allen Toussaint performed at Professor Longhair’s funeral. A Big Chief himself, Donald Harrison, Jr. contributed several songs from his jazz repertoire to the film, including a version of “Big Chief” from the album “Indian Blues.“ The Dirty Dozen Brass Band contributed music, as well as as Arvo Part contributed “Fratres” and “Silentium“ to the film. Jimmy Scott’s haunting rendition of “Strange Fruit” is also included in the film. One of the three main characters in Bury the Hatchet, Big Chief Doucette contributed “Chocko Me Feendo Hey” and “My Indian Red; (My Baby Doods version of those songs are also included.) Big Chief Monk Boudreaux also contributed music to the film. Ernest Skipper’s “Shotgun Joe is also in the movie. Young Guardians of the Flame (members of the Harrison family (Donald Harrison) have two songs in the film, “Indian Red” and “Big Chief, Where Are You?” The music plays a large part in the film and even contributes to the stories of how and why the costumes were made. Indeed “Strange Fruit” was the genesis for a beautiful heartrending costume made by Big Chief Alfred Doucette.
I would recommend this film highly to anyone who wants to begin to understand the city and traditions of New Orleans. If you understand the underlying meaning of Louis Armstrong’s song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” you will begin to know why New Orleans children, residents, and musicians (who love New Orleans) always know the words to that song by heart. This movie is a tribute to the city of New Orleans and its people; enjoy it, savor it and learn from it; it is a jewel that should become part of the lore that is New Orleans.
Laura Bergerol is a professional photographer in New Orleans and blogs on Posterous where you can also see some of her photos of the Mardi Gras Indians.