The Gede in New Orleans: Vodou Ritual in Big Chief Allison Tootie Montana's Jazz Funeral

Article excerpt

Introduction

[Vodou] rituals do, actually, work so often, for the primary effect of such ritual action is upon the doer. That action reaffirms first principles-destiny, strength, love, life, death; it recapitulates a man 's relationship to his ancestors, his history, as well as his relationship to the contemporary community; it exercises and formalizes his own integrity and personality... He emerges with a strengthened and refreshed sense of his relationship to cosmic, social, and personal elements. A man so integrated is likely to function more effectively than one whose adjustment has begun to disintegrate, and this will be reflected in the relative success of his undertakings.

-Maya Deren1

Allison Tootie Montana (1922-2005) was the former chief of the Yellow Pocahantas tribe and the most famous Mardi Gras Indian leader in twentieth-century New Orleans because of his family's significant contributions to the music, sewing, and spiritual arts of the Black Indian tradition for more than one hundred years. The Black Indian tribes of New Orleans originated in the late-nineteenth century as secret societies and Carnival performance traditions that are descended from, commemorate, and reinterpret the resistance strategies of Louisiana's African-Amerindian maroon communities during slavery. Their performance and festival parades called second lines have striking similarities to the Sequin artists and Rara bands of Haiti.2

Chief Montana died from a heart attack that happened while he testified before a meeting of the New Orleans City Council on June 27, 2005. The hearing focused on the New Orleans police department's harassment of the Mardi Gras Indians' parade on St. Joseph's night on March 19. St. Joseph's feast day is a sacred holiday for the Black Indian tribes. Montana collapsed after he told the City Council-in Kreyol-"Connugh/Fais! This [harassment] has got to stop!"3 This article is based on my photo documentation and participation in Chief Montana's wake service and jazz funeral procession in New Orleans on July 9, 2005. The research focuses on the influences of the Gede family of spirits in his funeral ritual by analyzing the historical and religious continuities between Haiti and Black New Orleans and the significance of Baron Samdi, the Skeleton Gangs, and St. Louis Cemetery, No. 2 in the six-hour second-line funeral procession. Finally, the epilogue of the article deals with the future of jazz funerals and the healing rituals of Vodou in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Haiti and Black New Orleans: Historical and Religious Continuities

Perhaps no group contributed more to the cultural development of Louisiana in the decades following the Purchase than émigré's from the French Caribbean colony of St. Domingue.

-Priscilla Lawrence4

The spiritual philosophies and rituals of Haitian Vodou that influence contemporary jazz funerals in New Orleans can be traced to the "common roots" and "ties" between Haiti and Black New Orleans that began in the nineteenth century.5 The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) produced the first nation in the modern world to come about as the consequence of a slave rebellion and influenced the Louisiana Purchase since "Louisiana was no longer needed as a warehouse and military bulwark for the wealthy [French] island colony"6 of St. Domingue. Haiti's revolutionary times resulted in the migration of thousands of slaves, free people of African descent, and white plantation owners from St. Domingue to Louisiana. These early Haitians brought their African and Catholic religious traditions, languages, music, architecture, literature, theater, and community values to New Orleans.7

The Crescent City was already the most African city in the United States and had a dynamic African and French Creole culture similar to that of St. Domingue in the early nineteenth-century. Both New Orleans and St. Domingue were the centers for Vodou in the Americas. …