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Aaron Walker's Bury the Hatchet 

Will Coviello on a new documentary about Mardi Gras Indians

April 22-28

Bury the Hatchet

2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Friday-Thursday

Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, 304-9992;

click to enlarge Big Chief Victor Harris' (pictured) Fi Ya Ya tribe makes suits resembling West African costumes. - JEFFREY DAVID EHRENREICH
  • Jeffrey David Ehrenreich
  • Big Chief Victor Harris' (pictured) Fi Ya Ya tribe makes suits resembling West African costumes.

One of the subtle but poignant moments in Aaron Walker's documentary Bury the Hatchet isn't about making Mardi Gras Indian suits — it's about building homes. Most of the footage was shot between 2004 and 2006, bridging the upheaval of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Like many Indians, Big Chief Alfred Doucette lost his home and most of his Indian suits. When he started to rebuild, he salvaged discarded cypress boards, noting that others were throwing away the durable, water-resistant wood as if it were garbage. He replaned them and rebuilt. Like many renowned big chiefs, he's a skilled craftsman, and he knows how to build things that will last.

  Much of the film focuses on a tumultuous three-year period for Mardi Gras Indian culture, including the New Orleans Police Department's disruption of the 2005 St. Joseph's night Indian march, the ensuing City Council meeting at which Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana collapsed and died as well as Katrina's aftermath. Through the eyes of big chiefs Doucette, Victor Harris and Monk Boudreaux, the film looks at a tradition defined by its endurance and celebrated for its growth into a font of pageantry and music inextricably tied into New Orleans' culture. The film recently was accepted into Hot Docs, one the top documentary film festivals in North America. It will premiere this week at its only scheduled theatrical screening.

  Montana figures prominently in the film because he changed Mardi Gras Indian culture by shifting the focus to making beautiful suits, altering the nature of standoffs between tribes that sometimes had resulted in violence in the past. The film takes its name from Boudreaux's song about making the tradition peaceful.

  There is no narration, and Indian history and customs are relayed through the chiefs. Walker spent many hours with each one as the chiefs crafted new suits, marched on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's night and barbecued in their backyards. The rapport they developed over time allows Walker to take the camera not just behind the suit but into chiefs' lives and homes. Walker also tracked down archival footage and photos. Another strength of the film is its wealth of traditional and modern versions of Indian songs.

  The Indian tradition, both in the style of the suits and sometimes in bead panels sewn by Indians, recalls the links between escaped slaves and Native Americans in colonial Louisiana. But the Indians' modern history is also about overcoming racism and civic setbacks. Doucette crafts a stunning suit inspired by the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit" which depicts a Ku Klux Klan lynching. Doucette also talks about how the construction of the I-10 overpass disrupted the African-American community and Indian traditions centered around North Claiborne Avenue. In one segment, he walks under the bridge and talks to some young boys about making costumes. Although he's dressed in plain clothes, they don't know what to make of a speech that seems intended for the camera. But as all three chiefs point out, training young people to sew is imperative to sustain the living tradition.

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