Tuesday, July 12, 2005

More on Tootie Montana

New Orleans Times Picayune
Chief of chiefs dies at meeting
He was trying to get Indians, cops together
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
By Michael Perlstein
Staff writer

Allison "Tootie" Montana, one of the most revered Big Chiefs to emerge from the century-old street culture of Mardi Gras Indians, suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking at a special New Orleans City Council meeting to discuss the St. Joseph's night confrontation between Indians and police.

Montana, 82, was at the podium, surrounded by more than a dozen other chiefs when he fell silent, then slumped to the floor. As murmurs and prayers began rising from through the standing-room-only crowd, a police captain and bystander worked furiously to revive Montana. He died a short time later at Charity Hospital.

Montana was stricken as he recounted run-ins with police stretching back several decades. He was not scheduled to appear at the long-awaited hearing, but he insisted on speaking out of his devotion to Indian life and a desire to smooth over the recently frayed relations with law enforcement. Montana was among the first speakers after brief opening comments by Police Superintendent Eddie Compass.

Montana's last words were, "I want this to stop," apparently referring to the cultural miscommunication that disrupted the Indian gathering March 19 at LaSalle Street and Washington Avenue. Participants complained that the traditional gathering was dispersed by police, some of whom were verbally and physically abusive.

Prayers offered

When Montana paused, his son and fellow chief Darryl Montana whispered something in his ear. Council President Oliver Thomas said, "Go ahead Chief, take your time."

Then Tootie Montana crumpled to the ground.

After minutes passed without an ambulance, the crowd quickly sensed the urgency of the situation. But instead of grief or panic, the chiefs and spy boys and flag boys and queens of the assembled tribes launched into a somber rendition of "Indian Red," a slow spiritual song that is a staple at Mardi Gras Indian funerals.

As an ambulance carried Montana away, Thomas offered an impromptu prayer.

"Everybody needs to pray for the chief," Thomas said, his voice trembling. "If we're never together on anything, let us be together in praying for Tootie and his family. . . . Maybe this is the moment that can bring New Orleans together like never before."

Moments after Montana was rushed to Charity, family members, Indians, City Council members and activists gathered on the emergency room entrance ramp. When Montana's death was announced, some people wailed, some wept silently and some began chanting in the peculiar and mystical dialect of the Indians.

Thomas, who had called for the public hearing, began sobbing. "Oh my God, this is my fault," he cried. He was quickly consoled by several members of the Indian community.

'In full glory'

As word spread, Montana's death seemed to gain an immediate spiritual significance, adding to a legend that spanned 52 years of masking. In recent years, Montana had transcended his longtime position of big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe and was referred to as, simply, chief of chiefs. His elaborately beaded and sculpted suits, celebrated in photographs, books and a 2002 museum exhibit, were always lavished with praise, even by notoriously competitive rival tribes.

A lathe operator by trade, Montana's Indian suits borrowed from his lifelong profession; examples can be found from the lobby ceiling of the Monteleone Hotel to the facade of Le Pavillon Hotel.

"He's chief of chiefs and chief of legends," said Larry Bannock, big chief of the Gold Star Hunters. "He's the chief that all other Indians looked up to, whether you're from Uptown or Downtown."

Bannock wasted no time in capturing the poignant timing of Montana's death.

"If I had to die," he said, "it would be just like this. He went out in full glory."

J. Nash Porter, a photographer who has chronicled Mardi Gras Indian culture for more than 40 years, said of Montana, "He's like a senior prophet. Everybody has respect for Tootie."

Hearing postponed

In the wake of the tragedy, the City Council hearing was postponed indefinitely. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians/Cultural Coalition, the group that urged Thomas to call the meeting, said a debriefing scheduled for today will instead serve as a tribute to Montana.

The St. Joseph's night confrontation ended with a summons being issued to the organizer, Betrand Butler, and the arrest of Butler's daughter. As they were being booked with disturbing the peace, about 2,000 revelers were sent home by police officers. City officials said they shut down the festivities because Butler had not obtained proper permits for the event and the gathering had grown too large. Indian leaders, however, said they have gathered on St. Joseph's night without permits or major problems for more than 100 years.

Police Capt. Anthony Canatella, commander of the 6th District, has taken much of the public criticism for the blow-up. Prepared to speak at the hearing about the handout on Mardi Gras Indian history he has made mandatory reading for his officers, he instead stood by helplessly as fellow officers tried to resuscitate Montana.

Afterward, he offered condolences to Montana's family, but like many of the assembled Indians, he also expressed a desire to see something positive come out of the tragedy.

"It's sad, very sad," Canatella said. "My heart goes out to his family. . . . But, hopefully, this can be a catalyst to get police and Indians together on this and work things out once and for all."

. . . . . . .

Michael Perlstein can be reached at mperlstein@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3316.[

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