Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Mardi Gras Indian Legend Tootie Montana

Best of New Orleans
COVER STORY 07 05 05
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Chief of Chiefs

Allison "Tootie" Montana is remembered as a legendary Mardi Gras Indian, a talented craftsman and a cherished neighbor.

By Katy Reckdahl
Photo by Syndey Byrd

An uptown chief, Estabon Eugene, should have been the first to address the City Council that night. Eugene, better known as Big Chief Peppy of the Golden Arrows, had signed up first, putting him at the top of the council's list of speakers. But he stepped aside for a small, well-dressed man -- downtown chief Allison "Tootie" Montana, the man known among Mardi Gras Indians as "chief of chiefs."

The council had convened the hearing to address police behavior on March 19 -- St. Joseph's night -- a traditional holiday for the city's Indian gangs ("St. Joseph's Night Gone Blue," March 29). Flyers for the hearing were headlined "Remember! Night of Terror." On the night of the hearing, dozens of those bystanders boarded buses at New Zion Baptist Church uptown and Treme Center downtown. They were ready to tell the council what they'd seen -- squad cars driving at high speeds and officers ordering highly respected big chiefs to remove their "f--king feathers." Indians, angry about the way they'd been treated, had been holding weekly meetings and pushing for this hearing for months.

Anyone who knew Montana knew him as a man of history. The big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas used the past to put the present into its proper context. Indeed, this was not the first time that the Indians had been mistreated by police, said Montana, 82, as he stepped to the podium and called the other chiefs in the room to stand behind him. Resting his left hand on the railing in front of him and gripping the microphone with his right, Montana told of a time years ago when he and the Yellow Pocahontas were treated roughly by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). "I want this to stop," he said, looking directly at the council and top NOPD brass.

Then he fell.

His son, Big Chief Darryl Montana, held his father while officers rushed forward and began CPR. About 10 minutes later, paramedics rushed in. Councilman Oliver Thomas adjourned the meeting and led the room in prayer, asking God that this moment bring everyone together. Then chiefs in the room began singing the sacred Indian chant, "Indian Red." As paramedics carried the chief of chiefs up the aisle, the room was silent except for the hushed singing of the chiefs and the voice of his wife, Joyce, who followed the stretcher, telling her husband she wasn't ready for him to leave her.

Montana was pronounced dead of a heart attack a few minutes later at Charity Hospital. "Tonight, a legend left us," said one man, as he stood outside Charity's emergency-room door. When the news cameras came, people looked into the lenses and talked about Tootie Montana, the legend, who had died the way an Indian should -- fighting for what's right and surrounded by his chiefs.

The next day, Indians across town got on the telephone, planning their own tribute to Montana. Between the call-waiting clicks of other Indians' calls, Larry Bannock, longtime big chief of the Gert Town-based Golden Star Hunters, talked about what it all meant.

Bannock calls Montana's death "the highest honor in the world," because he died with his gang and his chiefs. "I've only seen two Indians die that way, " he says. The first was Ferdinand Bigard, big chief of the Cheyenne gang, who died in November 2001 at Indian practice. And now Montana, he says.

Take a closer look at that evening, says Bannock. It began with an uptown Indian yielding the microphone to a downtown Indian -- itself a momentous occasion. "It was one of the first times the borderline was erased," Bannock explains. "You had uptown Indians, downtown Indians, West Bank Indians -- and everyone came together for one reason." Erased for the night were the rivalries, the divisions that are evident even in each year's suits -- uptown Indians are known for rhinestones and plumes and downtown Indians for their sequins and feathers.

Of course, Big Chief Peppy would not have stepped out of line for just anyone. "There are only a few chiefs that have that drawing power, where they can stand and have all the other chiefs stand behind them," says Bannock, who grew up hearing about Big Chief Tootie. Montana built that reputation the only way a chief can, through masking, 52 years of new suits, first worn each year on Mardi Gras Day.

Montana didn't just sew -- he loved Indian culture, Bannock says. "Whenever there was a function that was Indian, Tootie was there. Whenever a tambourine was hit, Tootie was there. Tootie lived it -- he was an old-time Injun."

Montana's family had masked Indian for more than a century. His great-uncle Becate Batiste helped found the Creole Wild West, one of the oldest tribes in the city. Tootie's father, Alfred Montana, was big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas. When Alfred retired, he passed the chiefship to Tootie and the second chief position to Tootie's late brother Elwood.

To Montana, no gang came above the Yellow Pocahontas. But he took pride in the fact that several members of the Yellow Pocahontas left to create new gangs and become big chiefs in their own right. Former flag boy Victor Harris is now big chief of the Fi YiYi gang. Others went on to become big chiefs of the Wild Apaches and the Blackfeathers. But Montana is still their leader.

"I will always be in my heart a Yellow Pocahontas," says Harris, who started masking with the Yellow Pocahontas at age 15 and served Montana for 20 years as his flag boy. "He is my chief; there are no other chiefs above him."

Harris recalls how new members of the Yellow Pocahontas couldn't wear a crown until Tootie said they deserved it: "You had to earn that feather." Earning it meant Montana inspecting your work. "He would turn a design over and say, 'Look at all the knots, the crooked stitches.'" A Tootie Montana suit had none of that sloppiness, inside or out. "He didn't settle for a mistake or a loose thread," says Harris.

Montana also wouldn't settle for a suit that didn't out-do previous years. "Tootie's suits got better and better and better. He was the prettiest in the world, and he would tell you that," says Harris. Montana's suits and his signature three-dimensional, geometric designs came from years of training as a lather, who uses metal and wire to make frames for plaster. "He always came 3-D, he always did," Harris says. "But it was beyond 3-D. There was depth and color in the surface of his suits, too."

Montana also promoted a more peaceful Indian culture, one that competed with beads and feathers, not knives. Both his suits and his message were well-known in town by 1997, when he announced that he would be stepping down. It would be the first of three retirements.

In between retirements, the Yellow Pocahontas gang stayed in the family, in the hands of Tootie's son, Darryl. But it seemed like those sewing hands couldn't stay still. In 2004, Montana came out on Mardi Gras Day in a resplendent yellow suit with an enormous crown, as wide as a shotgun house. Once again, Montana gave interviews and announced that he had made his last suit. This time he was right.

In New Orleans' Seventh Ward, Tootie Montana is a household name. The name rolls off tongues of people who never follow Indians, people who couldn't tell a spy boy from a flag boy or a feather from a plume. "It's like not being a basketball fan, but knowing who Michael Jordan is," says Donald Mills, who grew up in the Seventh Ward and now runs a car wash on St. Bernard Avenue, near Montana's longtime house on North Villere Street.

To Mills, Montana was more than a chief who'd worked his way through the ranks. He was also a man of detail, of discipline. "He represented what people wanted to see in an Indian," says Mills.

Several blocks away is Montana's well-kept white house. For decades, on Fat Tuesday, crowds would gather outside to see the chief emerge in his brand-new suit. Neighbors sold hot dogs and grilled on packed sidewalks and streets. "On Mardi Gras Day, we could be proud -- it always looked like Mardi Gras on this block," says Crezell Lewis, who shares a double shotgun with her sister Vanessa Journee across the street from the Montanas. A third sister, Avanette Anderson, lives next door.

Some neighbors still call the trio by their maiden names: the Journee sisters, Crezell, Vanessa and Avanette. Vanessa is the most curious sister, the one who notices who's doing what and what cars are going by. On the Wednesday following Montana's collapse in the Council chambers, she's the first to see the family drive up. The sisters tell Ms. Joyce that the mayor had stopped by -- he told them he'd stop back. The previous day it had been Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and Channel 6.

All well-deserved attention, they say. "He was sweet as pie," says one sister. "A jewel," says the other. The funeral, they say, should be spectacular, with all-yellow flowers, for the Yellow Pocahontas, and 52 tambourines, one for each year Montana masked.

Around this block, Montana was known as an old-time dresser, neat and ironed but not flashy. He was the active old man with a cool-looking stride, quiet at first but able to talk to you from one end of the house to the other. If he wore a hat, he tipped it whenever he passed a lady. He was a fanatic about his garden, but neighbor kids knew they could pick a flower if they asked him first.

Longtime neighbors saw him every morning, sitting on his porch's top rail. They could tell when Mardi Gras was approaching because Montana's fingers swelled from being poked by needles. They knew it was Friday because the extended Montana family arrived for their fish fry.

Montana was also this block's volunteer handyman. He'd been inside nearly every house on this block, helping anyone who asked, but never taking a dime, say the sisters. When Crezell needed new heaters for her house, Montana advised her what to get and told her he'd install them. After Avanette bought the house next door, Montana inspected it and then she gave him a key and he'd just go in there and work.

Photo by Syndey Byrd
Tootie Montana and his wife, Joyce, were inseparable. "I call them eagles," says one neighbor. "Because you see one, you see the other."
"That's how he lived," says Avanette, poking her head outside. "He said that long ago, people in the Seventh Ward would come together and build houses for each other."

Always the historian, Montana could tell stories for hours about the Seventh Ward's many Creole craftsmen and the ward's longtime families, especially families like the Montanas, the Journees and the Dollioles, some of the most common names in this part of town. "He knew our family from way back," says Avanette, one of 13 Journee kids. "If I had a question about my grandparents, I asked him."

When the sisters say "stories," they don't mean the kind of stories that keep a crowd laughing. "He didn't really tell jokes," says Crezell. "He told facts."

All three of the sisters have watched Tootie Montana ever since they were small. They remember when his wild man used to carry real bones and blood. They can debate, going back years, about which suit was the best. Was it the green one, the blue, the purple, the pink?

Each year's suit was a big secret, the design kept in Tootie's head, the color known only to Tootie and his wife, hidden from even Montana's son Darryl. But each year, Vanessa watched as Montana carried in beads and fabric, hoping to catch some clues. "I'd say, I believe Tootie is going to come out in blue," she says. She guessed once, the year he wore white.

He didn't hang out with the fellas, didn't have an afternoon beer at a corner barroom. "I never knew Tootie to go out," says Crezell. When he left the house, Joyce was by his side, going to second-line parades, jazz concerts, funerals. "I call them eagles," says Vanessa. "Because you see one, you see the other."

"I call him an eagle, too," Crezell says. "Because birds have eyes, but eagles have vision -- they can see for miles and miles."

Avanette saw the Montanas leaving the house together an hour before the council hearing. She asked Tootie what he was going to say.

"I don't have no script," he said. Then he tapped his forehead. "I'm coming from here."
Funeral Services for Big Chief Tootie Montana

• Visitation from noon to 7 p.m. on Friday, July 8, at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of Performing Arts in Armstrong Park.

• Visitation at 8 a.m., funeral at 10 a.m. at St. Augustine Catholic Church, 1210 Gov. Nicholls St. A jazz funeral procession will follow the service.

• Plans for a repast were still being finalized at Gambit Weekly's press time. See www.bestofneworleans.com for updated information.

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