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Beaded Benevolence 

The late Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard served as a father figure to younger Mardi Gras Indians.

Throughout his life, Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard maintained the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians. Since 1946, he designed and helped create spectacular beaded and feathered suits for many Indians -- as well as finally leading his own gang, the Cheyenne. Bigard, whose family boasts many Indian members, visited schools to demonstrate the art of creating Indian suits and give lectures on the customs. An award-winning artist and respected chief, Ferdinand Bigard died on Nov. 13 at the age of 73.

Bigard was a family man, a professional tailor and self-taught artist who early on applied his talents by drawing and sewing for those in his family that masked Indian. "My grandfather was always behind the scenes," says Bigard's grandson Thomas "Big Chief Bo" Dean, who leads the Young Cheyenne, a next-generation gang to the Cheyenne. "He was the one who helped design costumes for my uncle Joe Pete (Adams) and his brother Severain (Bigard), who was the original Mardi Gras Indian of the family. My grandfather was the guy that did the drawings for them and planned the decorations. He didn't decide to put a costume together to wear himself until after he retired."

When his children were grown, Bigard finally donned a suit and "crown" (headpiece) of his own as chief of the Cheyenne, a gang he formed in 1980. He expressed concern about what he saw as a decline in the Indian culture, and as chief he taught the traditions to young members of his and other tribes. His role as a father figure was underscored by his nickname: "Papa."

"With every young person I train, I feel good because I know I am carrying on our culture and tradition," Bigard once said.

"It's always important for people like him to go out and positively perpetuate the culture," says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a teacher at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School, where Bigard often visited and was an inductee of its Mardi Gras Indians Hall of Fame. Harrison-Nelson, who is the Queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe, remembers that Bigard would offer some fun in his Mardi Gras Indian history lessons. At a demonstration at Jazz Fest one year, he allowed children to put on his crown and take pictures. "That's pretty exciting for a kid from Omaha," Harrison-Nelson says.

"One of the things that I think made him very successful with teaching beadwork was that the children understood that he really wanted them to learn and he was extremely patient," recalls Chuck Siler, programs curator for the Louisiana State Museum, where one of Bigard's pieces is incorporated in a mural.

Bigard constantly educated himself and drew inspiration for his designs from the research he did on African, Native American and Haitian art, and even the Bible. He considered his work to be both philosophical and inspirational, and he took pride that his subjects were chosen for both historical accuracy and moral significance.

"Everything he made, he made real," says his old friend Chief Eugene "Junior" Thomas of the White Eagles, who has masked Indian since 1949. "The pictures he made were different than anybody I ever saw. He would read the Book -- the scriptures in the Bible -- and all and then he'd draw them. Like he got that tree, you know when Moses set the tree on fire, he drew that picture."

Bigard retired from masking in 1994, and he created a new Indian art form when he produced framed beadings stylistically similar to the Indian patches that make up a suit. One such work, "Eye on God," received the Mayor's Arts Award and is on display at the Nora Navra Library on St. Bernard Avenue. His work has appeared in galleries throughout the city and nationwide, and is included in the permanent collection at Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institute.

"It all stemmed from his Indian suits," says Big Chief Bo of Bigard's artwork. "My grandfather was the one that took [Mardi Gras Indian beading] to a different level."

At Bigard's funeral service on Nov. 17, friends and family stopped to admire several of his framed pieces that sparkled in the sun outside St. Augustine Church. In one sequin-and-bead work, a small but significant detail depicted an eye, a cross and a dove. To capture the illusion of reflected light, Bigard placed one small white pearl among the many black beads that made up the eye. Such details marked the attention to craft that was the hallmark of Mardi Gras Indian Chief Ferdinand Bigard.

click to enlarge With every young person I train, I feel good because I know I am carrying on our culture and tradition, Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard once said.
  • With every young person I train, I feel good because I know I am carrying on our culture and tradition, Big Chief Ferdinand Bigard once said.
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