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?"

February 14, 2007 11:43 AM | | Comments (0)


Leave a comment


Evan Christopher Django à la Créole (Lejazzetal) 

Clarinetist Evan Christopher, a California native, moved to New Orleans in 1994. In his frequent duets with Tom McDermott, and as a standout member of trumpeter Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, his erudite and personalized approach to traditional jazz commands attention.

Dr. Michael White Blue Crescent (Basin Street) 

Long before the floods that devastated his city, clarinetist Michael White wrestled with the challenge of preserving New Orleans traditional jazz without embalming it. He sought to write tunes built on time-honored local forms that spoke to the here-and-now. But Dr. White struggled to compose anything at all during the past three years--until late 2007, when original music began pouring forth.

Dee Dee Bridgewater
Red Earth: A Malian Journey (DDB Records/Emarcy/Universal) Despite her place in the top rank of American jazz vocalists and her crossover success, Dee Dee Bridgewater has often felt displaced. "I'm always trying to fit in somewhere," she once told me. This new disc, which finds Ms. Bridgewater and her band in collaboration with a cast of Malian musicians and singers, is no further pose:
David Murray Black Saint Quartet featuring Cassandra Wilson Sacred Ground (Justin Time) 
Long among the strongest, most adventurous reedmen in jazz,
Joe Zawinul Brown Street (Heads Up) 
The list of great Viennese composers must include Zawinul--same for the honor roll of jazz innovators.
more listengood


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by ListenGood published on February 14, 2007 11:43 AM.

Indians a-comin' was the previous entry in this blog.

is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.