Joseph Pierre "Big Chief Monk" Boudreaux
“Take me downtown on the battlefield; and when you meet ‘em that morning you’d better not kneel.”
Joseph Pierre “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux is the leader of the Golden Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe of New Orleans, Louisiana. Born in New Orleans on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, Boudreaux is a vital figure in the tradition, and has steadfastly distinguished himself as a gifted folk artist and dynamic performing musician through his unwavering dedication to this singular African American culture.
The New Orleans Black Indians emerged in the late 19th century, appearing as various “tribes” or “gangs,” in stunningly elaborate costumes, or “suits,” that combine the visual aesthetics of 19th century American Plains Indians and Afro-Caribbean Carnival revelers. Completely handmade, these suits include brightly colored feathers, intricate beadwork, rhinestones, sequins, satin, and ruffles.
Music and movement are as central to the tradition as is symbolic costuming, or “masking.” The 1956 field recordings by documentarian Samuel Charters first captured the group’s mélange of percussion, hypnotic chanting, and improvisational singing. This musical tradition is expressed through a shared canon of song form, lyrical allusions, Black Indian patois phraseology, and rhythmic structure.
Boudreaux began masking with the White Eagles tribe as a young man of 16. He drew personal inspiration from his father Raymond, a carpenter by trade, who had been a member of the Wild Squatoulas when Monk was very young. After Monk became a member of the White Eagles, an internal dispute led to the dissolution of the tribe and he joined the Golden Eagles. Boudreaux later became the Big Chief of that tribe.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a small group of New Orleans students and folklorists worked to bring the Mardi Gras Indian tradition to a wider community. Boudreaux, and several others, eventually became nationally known recording artists by blending their folk traditions with R&B and funk.
Boudreaux’s musical career has spanned nearly a half-century and has seen him perform in the world’s finest concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Additionally, he has performed in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. Boudreaux has recorded several critically acclaimed albums and has appeared as a guest musician on numerous recordings. In 1982, he performed with rock legend Robbie Robertson on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. More recently, Boudreaux portrayed himself in several episodes of HBO’s original series Treme.
Though Boudreaux has traveled the world as an ambassador of the Mardi Gras Indian culture, he remains deeply rooted in the traditions of place and family. Today, he focuses his artistic energies on his children and grandchildren, who now form the members of the Golden Eagles. As Boudreaux completes his sixth decade of masking, he grows ever more dedicated to maintaining, and indeed perpetuating, the foundations of this vibrant American vernacular culture.
Bio by Robert Brown, Appalachian State University
2016 Interview with Joseph Pierre “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux by Josephine Reed
Edited by Kathryn Brough
NEA: For people who might not know, what is a Mardi Gras Indian?
Joseph Pierre “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux: We are Chateau Indians. Way back in the day, the older people, they migrated from all over Louisiana to New Orleans, and we were left with the tradition. Mardi Gras was the only day that they could really come out and be who they were. That's why they call them the Mardi Gras Indians.
NEA: When did you start masking?
Boudreaux: Well, as a kid, four or five, my dad was masking. We used to get up at four o’clock in the morning, and I helped him to put his suit on. When I became 12 years old, then I started sewing, because that's the only way you could mask. You had to sew your own suit.
NEA: And can you describe the suit?
Boudreaux: We start off with canvas, and we draw pictures on the canvas and then we bead the pictures. Then we put rhinestones around the beads and we do it until we fill it out. Then we used to use quail feathers and the older guys used to use turkey feathers, but now we use ostrich feathers, which cost a lot of money. Some suits could weigh from maybe five, six hundred pounds. Some have a thousand pounds on.
NEA: And the colors?
Joseph Boudreaux: We pick a color every year.
NEA: How long does it take you to make a suit?
Boudreaux: The suits that we wear, it takes a year to two years, if you would just try to put one together. We were taught the way that, every three years, you change your front and you take the front and put it in the back and you make a new front. But now the younger guys, they trying to be the best out there, so sometimes it takes them two years, three years just to put a suit together like mine.
NEA: And the music is just as important as the suits to the tradition.
Boudreaux: Oh, yeah, we were taught as kids. When I was real young and I first started out, the older people had a way of knowing who would be ready to be a Chief. This friend of mine, he never masked, but he knew all the Indian songs, and he took me under his wings. He said, “Man, you just stand by me and listen to me, because one day you are going to be the Big Chief.”
NEA: And that's how you learned the songs. How do you become the Big Chief?
Boudreaux: It was handed down. I started out masking as a Spy Boy. I was second Spy Boy. When the Big Chief was ready to retire, he gives it to the first Spy Boy, but the first Spy Boy didn't want it, so it came down to me. I’ve been the Big Chief ever since.
NEA: So Spy Boy is a position like Chief is a position?
Boudreaux: It’s a tribe and maybe you may have 20, 30 in your tribe, 50. Back in them days, they had a lot of the tribes, and a Spy Boy is the number one because he’s in front. The Chief may be, say, four or five blocks from that first Spy Boy. It goes on to three Spy Boys, three Flag Boys, and the purpose of that was if the trouble is up ahead and the Spy Boy sees it, he would throw a signal and the signal would go from one to another until it got to the Chief.
NEA: What happens on Mardi Gras Day?
Boudreaux: You want people to see what work you put into it, and that's why we meet the other tribes and show them that we did our homework. We meet them, we dance, and we talk and tell them, “Hey, look at me.”
NEA: So how many people are in your tribe?
Boudreaux: Now I have 13, mostly family members.
NEA: What time do you go out on Mardi Gras?
Boudreaux: Well, in the days, we used to come out at five in the morning, but now we might be out at nine, ten. We come singing coming up the street. We leave my house, which is way uptown, and we start heading towards downtown.
NEA: How long does this go on for?
Boudreaux: Well, if I leave at nine, I may get back to my house round three or four o’clock. And then we start the party.
NEA: What do you typically eat?
Boudreaux: Oh, we eat raccoon, deer, alligator, squirrels, rabbits.
NEA: What happens when you meet other tribes?
Boudreaux: Well, we sing and dance and then talk. You show your suit off to them and let them know, “Hey, I got this.”
NEA: Are there songs particular to your tribe, to the Golden Eagles?
Boudreaux: Me being a musician, I could just make a song out the top of my head, and that's what I do. I’ve sung all the traditional songs, and now when I go out I sing some of them, and then I write other songs.
NEA: Did you sing all your life?
Boudreaux: Well, as a kid, around five, six years old, they had these old guys who used to be around the house, and they used to sing the blues every day. I used to come home from school and go sit down by Mr. Benson’s house and listen to him. He used to get his guitar and come sit on his steps, and he used to sing the blues every day. Another man called Brer Mo used to go to the grocery store, and he’d be walking and singing. I used to follow him around, so Brer Mo told me, “Well, if you’re gonna find me, you can go to the store for me.” And, you know, that's how I came to learn the blues.
NEA: What’s the difference between singing a song on Mardi Gras Day, when you’re doing the parade, and being up on a stage?
Boudreaux: Well, it’s more like the spirits carry you on Mardi Gras Day. On the stage, you’re just performing.
NEA: You performed after Katrina. Were you evacuated during Katrina?
Boudreaux: Yes, I went up to Texas, to my daughter’s house. She lived in Mesquite, Texas. We left three days after. We were living in an apartment out by the warehouse district and when they started cutting the water off and the electric off, then we had to leave. So we left and we drove up there, and I stayed up there until it was time to come home. I couldn't wait.
NEA: And how was it when you came back?
Boudreaux: Oh, everything was just a mess. When I opened the door, the stuff that was in the kitchen was in the front room. Everything was just torn up, laying all around. I just went in there and took everything out, threw it out on the sidewalk. I did that to three houses by myself. Nobody was there but me, because I was one of the first ones back.
NEA: Do you think New Orleans has gotten back on its feet again?
Boudreaux: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They still have a lot of abandoned houses where people never came back, but I had to go back because that was home. I’ve been all over the world, but I haven’t seen anywhere else that I would want to live.
NEA: What was the Jazz Fest after Katrina like?
Boudreaux: Oh, wow, lots of people there and we masked Indian, a lot of Indians came back.
NEA: You portrayed yourself in several episodes of HBO’s Treme. What was that like? Tell me about that experience.
Boudreaux: Well, it was a thing that they come down and they asked us to do it. You know, I’m a stage man, so it’s not a problem with me. Everything you do in the music business is fun because mostly you’re making people happy, and that's what I like to do: to help people have a good time, because it isn’t good to be down all the time. Come listen to some good music and it’ll lift you up.
NEA: And your kids are involved in masking?
Boudreaux: Oh, yeah, kids, grandkids. We start them off at one year old. Keep the tradition going.
NEA: How far back does it go in your family?
Boudreaux: Well, I can just only go back to my dad, but I think it goes back a little further than that, because it’s been going on forever, like since the 1700s.
NEA: What do you think is the best time you’ve had performing?
Boudreaux: Well, all the times are good for me because I’m enjoying what I’m doing, and the people are enjoying it also and that's what really matters.
NEA: What does that mean to you to get the National Heritage Fellowship?
Boudreaux: It’s an honor. When I first heard about, Rob Brown came to my house and he said, “Man, all this work I’m looking at you doing, how long you been doing this?” I said, “Forever.” He said, “Man, you should get this award. I’m going to put your name in.” And then he came back next year and said, “I’m still working on it,” and the next year he said, “Well, Monk, I don’t know, it could take four years or longer.” I said, “Well, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” I got the phone call and I said, “Wow, can’t believe this happened.”
NEA: What do you think getting the award says about the place of Mardi Gras Indian tradition?
Boudreaux: I’m one of the best and I’m the oldest that’s still masking and for this to happen to Indians in New Orleans, it’s an honor. Like I tell my grandson, “You keep on going like you going, and maybe one day you’ll be up here.”
NEA: Big Chief Monk, where did Monk come from? How did you get that name?
Boudreaux: When I was a kid, they had a lot of fruit trees and pecan trees in New Orleans. I was so small, the bigger guys would send me up there to shake the trees down. I used to be up there swinging from one limb to the next. “Hey, he looks like a little monkey up there,” and that's where the name came from.