The Black Masking Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are one of the city's most photogenic cultural traditions. Their eye-catching garments, with color-saturated plumes, feathers, and intricate beadwork, are featured on magnets, postcards, and prints for sale in souvenir shops. Photographers search for Black Indians on the streets of the city on Mardi Gras morning and again on St. Joseph's night. They jockey for space to grab snapshots at Super Sundays, public gatherings when Black Indian “tribes” perform their signature chants, customary choreographed greetings, and dance battles. But few outside the community appreciate the intricate web of relationships within a tribe, are privy to their history, or have witnessed the creation of a full mask, called a “suit.” Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, offers readers the story of one tribe—Fi Yi Yi1—via the voices of its members, particularly its iconic founder, Victor Harris, who has created more than fifty suits and is currently the longest-masking Black Indian in New Orleans. Edited by Rachel Breunlin, this book features photographs by the tribe's official image documentarian, UNO anthropology professor Jeffrey David Ehrenreich, who has worked with Fi Yi Yi for almost two decades.
Written as a “collaborative ethnography” that foregrounds the voices of Fi Yi Yi's members and supporters, Fire in the Hole differs from a typical art historical or ethnographic publication. Rather than a main narrative offered by an outsider—such as an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, or historian—the community's culture bearers tell their own stories. As art historian Cynthia Becker explains,
In academic journals … scholarship typically comes from Western-trained cultural outsiders who engage in on-the-ground research to learn about a specific artistic tradition. Although scholars might spend years in discussion with the artists, rarely do we hear the voices of the artist-practitioners themselves“ (p. 186).
The oral histories in the book have been arranged and edited into narratives that explain the formation of Fi Yi Yi, their connection to community activism, as well as the design inspirations and intensive labor that go into creating their dazzling hand-sewn suits. The book is part of the Neighborhood Story Project, a New Orleans-based nonprofit collaborative ethnography organization that has partnered with the University of New Orleans. Since 2004, the Neighborhood Story Project has published more than fifteen books committed to documenting the culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana more broadly by highlighting local voices, which brings its own challenges. As anthropologist Helen Regis reveals,
I think one of the hardest things is trying to think about how the stories will read to someone who doesn't know New Orleans. There's so much insider talk. We have our own language for masking, parading, sewing, and the layers upon layers of relationships can be hard to untangle (p. 188).
But the book triumphs in its goal. The stories are easy to follow, even for those not familiar with New Orleans culture.
Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors is arranged chronologically and begins with the group's founding story. Chapters have descriptive titles and useful section headings that guide readers (such as “The Pain of Change,” “In Search of Healing,” and “Jack Joins the Table”). The main protagonist is Victor Harris, originally a member of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters tribe under the city's most famous Big Chief, “Tootie” Montana. However, Harris (along with his buddy Collins “Coach” Lewis) were kicked out of the group in 1984 due to a dispute about singing the tribe's chants on a commercial recording, which was perceived by Montana and other members as a betrayal because Harris and Lewis had not first asked for permission. Although years later both mended their relationship with Montana and the Yellow Pocahontas, for Harris, exile from his tribe was heartrending. Experiencing a crisis of the soul and searching for healing, he spent a night in prayer, eventually falling asleep on his kitchen floor. Waking the next morning, Harris was overtaken by an epiphany. He would found his own tribe, to be called Fi Yi Yi, a tribe that would follow a more Afrocentric style than other Black Indian groups in the city and would be deliberately socially and politically engaged. Harris explains,
The spirit of my African ancestors had come to me. “You no more Indian. You are a Black man. You are an African man.” I wanted to identify with my people. Africans painted their face, and they wore masks. There was something frightening, but also beautiful and peaceful about it (p. 14).
Fi Yi Yi's signature became their use of use cowrie shells and raffia, plus a full face mask rather than a “crown” of feathers and plumes, differentiating them from other Black Indian groups in New Orleans. When Harris masks, he becomes the African spirit he calls Fi Yi Yi. While officially his tribe is named the Mandingo Warriors, everyone knows them as “Spirit of Fi Yi Yi.”
Fi Yi Yi embodies both personal and community “spirit work,” as the title of the book implies. The society offers membership in a unique and proud local tradition of art creation and performance. Lifelong relationships developed as these artist-performers spent years around the sewing table together and also taught newcomers their traditions. The snares and perils of living in neighborhoods troubled by crime, violence, and scarce economic prospects are allayed by the strong bonds and artistic focus the tribe provides. Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors are a community of resistance, and they believe in the healing influence and transformative power of masking, music, and dance. Harris reveals,
Even thought I still felt a lot of pain about having the leave the Yellow Pocahontas. I wanted to be a representative of my neighborhood. Sewing was my contribution to make it safe and vibrant. As my children grew up, my backyard was full of their friends. I liked to give time, not just on Carnival day. people started looking up to me as a chief. People sought me out of solve problems. I called my tribe the Mandingo Warriors. We were always together (p. 15).
Many have played important roles in Fi Yi Yi, including Harris's large extended family and more, including his longtime friend Collins “Coach” Lewis, master suit designer Jack Robertson, and Wesley Phillips, who today directs the drumming accompaniment. The use of drumming makes Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors unique, since the majority of Black Indian groups feature only tambourines rather than designated drummers, further revealing Fi Yi Yi's efforts to connect their group to African tradition. Phillips divulges, “Poetry, African drumming, Civil Rights songs, and Mardi Gras Indian culture blended together to create our rhythms. I draw upon these different experiences to create our tribe's sound” (p. 30).
On days when they mask, Black Indians take ownership of the streets of their neighborhoods, always under the guidance of a Big Chief. These Big Chiefs have earned an almost mythic status in New Orleans and command respect in their communities. Harris explains that when he masks, “I become the Mardi Gras preacher. It's a calling … The vibration of the suit makes people want to touch Fi Yi Yi” (p. 32). UNO professor and Fi Yi Yi's official photographer, Jeffrey Ehrenreich adds, explaining Harris's role as a “public shaman,” “My definitions of shamanism includes the healing that occurs when the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors march down the street and a little kid sees you as culture heroes” (p. 50).
Ehrenreich's lush photos illustrate the book, including both close shots that spotlight the opulently detailed beadwork of a suit and images that zoom out to reveal context. Differing from the representations of parading Mardi Gras Indians typically captured by photographers, Ehrenreich's lens focuses on relationships within the tribe, such as late night joviality around the sewing table, intimate moments of spiritual reflection while readying to mask, or fiery exchanges in the street with tribes from other neighborhoods. Rachel Breunlin, the book's editor and codirector of the Neighborhood Story Project, mentions that Ehrenreich's archive included over 100,000 images of the tribe.
Breunlin and her team gathered interviews over a period of more than half a decade. She describes how the project progressed,
I edited the transcripts, and we read them together to make lists of questions to begin filling in the gaps … since the book would be solely in people's own voices, the details were important to create vividness in the text. Over all, we produced more than 800 pages of transcripts (p. 186).
Breunlin's role included placing interviews into chronological narratives to feature the tribe's core experiences and working with photo editor Bruce Sunpie Barnes to determine what images from Ehrenreich's vast archive to choose for the book. They explain that the “text became the compass” (p. 187) and final images were selected because they were not only visually compelling but also helped tell the story of the tribe.
The book recalls the triumphs and setbacks the group has experienced over the years. Harris lost his house in Hurricane Katrina but nevertheless returned to New Orleans, staying with various friends and sewing that year's suit wherever he could. Just a few years later, Collins “Coach” Lewis, a founding member of the tribe and an integral part of the sewing and design team, passed away unexpectedly. The following year, creating a suit dedicated to Coach's memory, Harris reflected sadly,
Jack [Robertson] is the last one at the table. The others are dead. It has been hard for me to sit here and all of these people who have been with me from the beginning are no longer around me (p. 127).
But Harris has never missed a year and has now been masking for more than half a century. This book is an effort to share the in-depth history of one of the most prominent Black Masking Indian tribes in the city, revealing the role of culture bearers in African American neighborhoods, including the links between the Fi Yi Yi tribe and the founding of Backstreet Cultural Museum, a museum founded and managed by people of the “back streets” of New Orleans.
The Backstreet Museum is one of the few venues in New Orleans where Black Indian suits can be seen on display. Sylvester Francis, the museum's founder, explains its beginnings:
I asked Victor, “Can I have that piece with the mask?” Francis hung it in his garage, where locals came to play pool after work … They were talking about that mask. I started begging Vic for more pieces. And this is how I started my museum. Nobody taught me how to make a museum. I learned myself from documenting the neighborhoods for so long (pp. 20–21).
Harris adds that “[Francis is] the caretaker. He preserves all the culture and history of the inner city” (p. 21). Eventually the museum moved from Sylvester Francis's garage to an abandoned funeral home in the Tremé neighborhood donated by his employers. Harris explains that the Backstreet Cultural Museum
provided a place for the suits to be shown but also a place for people to share their time and talk about events that happened. it became the headquarters of the culture and the neighborhood where people felt good about why they are; everybody is somebody there (p. 22).
Such dialogue in the book illustrates how grassroots organizations in New Orleans worked to save, display, and celebrate African American culture, despite their modest budgets and limited means. Anthropologist Jeffrey Ehrenreich lauds this community-based museum. He clarifies,
As I got more involved in Fi Yi Yi, I realized that many of the events I was photographing were produced by the Backstreet. Much of the cultural landscape that I was interested in learning about and sharing through photography had been produced in other ways through the museum and the groups who supported it. My lens was influenced by this collective vision (p. 35).
Rather than see himself as just a documentary photographer, Ehrenreich's long involvement with Fi Yi Yi resulted in his becoming a valued, although non-masking, member of the group.
Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors is both an art book and an ethnography told in many voices. For African and African Diaspora scholarship, it provides a successful model of new forms of knowledge production and collaboration. Here, the culture bearers speak for themselves and share stories featuring the “back streets” instead of the “main streets” of New Orleans. Harris affirms,
On Carnival day, when I hear them call out, “Fire in the hole!” they are calling the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi, which was created by the faith of so many people. I hope they feel themselves in these pages. And for the ones that aren't here anymore, I carry their spirits into the next suit (p. 53).
This book will fascinate a wide variety of readers, including scholars, students, collectors, and aficionados of African and African Diaspora arts, self-taught artists, anthropologists, folklorists, performance studies researchers, photographers, documentarians, and all those interested in community arts activism, alternative ethnography, and cross-cultural dialogues.
Although spelled “Fi Yi Yi” in New Orleans, the name is pronounced “Fi Ya Ya.”