Hot Docs 2011: Bury The Hatchet

It's a New Orleans tradition that stretches back more than 150 years — a way for the descendants of slaves to honour and remember the Native Americans who helped their ancestors escape to freedom. Each year on Mardi Gras, as the tourists are getting drunk on Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras Indians parade through their own neighbourhoods in a whirl of colour and music. It's a spectacular sight. But even before Katrina, it was getting harder and harder to preserve.

Bury The Hatchet opens in 2005, months before the storm hits, and follows three Big Chiefs as they put the finishing touches on their suits for that year. It's an expensive and painstaking process. The Chiefs pour thousands of their own dollars into beads and feathers and canvas, and the film spends much of its time with them at the kitchen table, surrounded by their families and tribes, as they hand-sew their elaborate designs. (One suit, for instance, recreates entire tableaus from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit".)

Seeing the work that goes into the tradition makes it all the more powerful when the men share the challenges they've been facing. In one scene, Big Chief Alfred Doucette walks through the neighbourhood where the tribes gather on Mardi Gras morning — once a tree-lined boulevard, it's now the concrete underside of the massive Interstate 10. There's harassment from the police, too; they remember the days when the Mardi Gras Indians were associated with violence and — in one of the film's tensest moments — they shut down the St. Joseph's night parade. When the Indians get a chance to publicly air their concerns to Mayor Ray Nagin, the most revered Big Chief of them all, Tootie Montana of the legendary Yellow Pocahontas, collapses at the microphone. By the time Katrina does arrive, it truly feels like the storm could be the death knell of the culture.

But it isn't. A few months after the hurricane, it's Mardi Gras time again, and the Big Chiefs are back out in the streets. And the most hopeful note of all came after the screening, in a Q&A with director Aaron Walker. The parades are experiencing a revival, he says, in part thanks to the storm. The youth of New Orleans — who have seen all the recent media coverage of their traditions, including HBO's brilliant series Treme — have been inspired to take up the mantle. Despite all the obstacles in their way, it seems the Mardi Gras Indians' spectacular tribute will live on.

Photo: Still from Bury The Hatchet

You'll find all of our Hot Docs coverage here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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