Flame burns bright.
It was a touching display of hope stacked upon hope. A circle of family, friends, supporters, teachers, students (and a few of us journalists) gathered for a brief ceremony, a site dedication for the future Guardians Institute next to the home of Herreast Harrison, at the corner of North Johnson and, appropriately enough, Independence.
On a block that's still relatively desolate, Herreast, who lives in a trailer beside her partially rebuilt house, dug a shovel into her yard and envisioned a future "a safe haven for children, and a place where cultural traditions are supported and authentically transmitted." At her side was her daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Counsel Queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, who has worked in a variety of contexts -- at the Albert Wicker School, where she teaches, and widely throughout the Mardi Gras community. (Alison's Fensterstock's piece for Gambit Weekly offers further background on Cherice.)
"Something deep within your soul calls you to do this, to participate in Mardi Gras Indian culture," Cherice told me. "It just calls you and you've got to do it for your mental and physical survival, and for the welfare of those around you." (She's captured an important slice of that tradition with her documentary, "Guardians of the Flame: A View from Within").
Herreast's son Donald Harrison, the jazz saxophonist, was in New York for a gig. But he'll be back in New Orleans in time to lead the Congo Nation tribe, of which he is Big Chief, on Mardi Gras day. But Kevin Cooley was there -- the five-year-old who leads the Young Guardians of the Flame tribe (perhaps the youngest Big Chief in Indian history).
Herreast Harrison explained that in furthering tradition, her institute was an extension of the legacy of her late husband Donald Harrison, Sr., who was during his life chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Educator and historian Al Kennedy, who has written a fascinating book about public schools and New Orleans musical traditions, offered a tribute drawn from his forthcoming biography of Donald Sr. (and posted here with the author's permission):
I 'm the Big Chief from the Guardians of the Flame, Big Chief Donald Harrison would sing.
Barkin' out Thunder/Roarin' Out Lightning/Kickin' over tombstones/Wakin' up the Dead
Barkin' out thunder. Roarin' out Lightning!
Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. lived his life barking out thunder and roaring out lightning. And he never bowed down. He took center stage wherever he stood. He challenged everyone, yet he earned respect and he gave respect. He crossed the social and cultural boundaries of New Orleans and left behind an artistic and historical legacy. He believed in education, strength of character, honesty, generosity, and pride. He found all of those in the Mardi Gras Indian traditions, and he shared those qualities with his children and his grandchildren and the other lives he touched.
Throughout his life, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition directed his footsteps, shaped his philosophy, and guided him through his final days. Being a Mardi Gras Indian was a fundamental part of Donald Harrison Sr. He needed the Mardi Gras Indians Indians in the same way that he needed air and water--to survive.
But he also knew he needed an education to survive. Many things can be taken away in this life; but Big Chief Donald Harrison knew the one thing that never could be taken away is an education. So he read -read almost everything he could find, from the Louisiana Weekly's he sold in the 1940s on through some of the most difficult philosophers whose works he sought out in the public library.
He also believed in strength of character, and he believed in honesty. "Truth is truth," he once stated. "One thing that never changes is the truth. You can twist anything else. Can't twist the truth. It will come back the truth. Then you are going to have to tell a lie to try to cover it up."
Throughout his life he sang "Indian Red," the sacred song of the Mardi Gras Indians, repeating the refrain: "We won't bow down." These were not idle words. Donald Harrison never bowed down. He was fearless in life, and he was fearless on his deathbed.
But, just as fearless as he was, Donald Harrison was just as generous. He was the man behind countless generous and unselfish actions for the people around him. He was motivated by his unwavering belief that people deserved a good life. He gave away money and many of his possessions. He helped people find jobs. He maneuvered and manipulated governmental bureaucracies to help people get the benefits they needed to survive.
The toughest decision he ever made was in 1968 when he put away the crown and the feathers he loved--for almost two decades, showing he loved his family more. The money that had been going into the Mardi Gras Indian suits now went into educating his four children.
Today that spirit is here. No one has kept that spirit alive more that Mrs. Herreast Harrison, the wife of Big Chief Donald. Whereas her husband roared out thunder and barked out lightening, she exhibits a different kind of strength.
Donald Harrison Sr.'s love for learning was matched by Herrerast Harrison's love for learning. She also knows the value of offering children a safe and secure place, which is what she is going to do here. The Guardian Institute, while it honors Big Chief Donald Harrison, is also a tribute to Herreast Harrison and her courage and her perseverance and her love for community. Her roots are deeper than an oak tree, and the worst natural disaster to hit our country has hit her and hurt her; but, like her husband, she has never bowed down--not even to Katrina. She is an example of the resilience of New Orleans. And, right here, in this place, we are seeing the strength of New Orleans, and, most important the hope for New Orleans' future.
The last time I saw Donald Harrison Jr., in October, he was in this same front yard of his childhood home. The filmmaker Jonathan Demme and a small crew were there, filming the Harrisons for a documentary that centers in part on the hardships they've endured since Katrina, and the family's centrality in New Orleans culture. Harrison's mother stood on the step of her trailer and recalled the day, decades ago, that Donald Harrison, Sr. came home from Werlein's Music Store, where, on a whim, he bought a saxophone for his son. Donald picked up his current alto horn and played some of "Amazing Grace" -- and swung it hard, as he might have played it in a brass band, while in his teens.
A few minutes later, Harrison grabbed a tambourine and, with his sister, Cara, and a nephew, Kiel, by his side singing along, underscored the Mardi Gras Indian traditional "Two-Way-Pocky-Way" with that same rhythm. His mother stood proudly, watching the scene unfold on a block lined with empty houses of undetermined fate. When he finished singing, Harrison put down his tambourine and looked into Demme's camera.
"I'm going to continue to be a Mardi Gras Indian," he said. "I'm going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But that's the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?"
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