- Chief of Chiefs: Robert Nathaniel Lee and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, 1915-2001 by Al Kennedy
When Michael P. Smith published his definitive study of Mardi Gras Indians in 1994, he was part of a community of historians and folklorists interested in the close-knit, marginalized men in New Orleans who mask Indian from Mardi Gras to St. Joseph's Day. Alan Govenar's foreword to Smith's book mentions Smith's inability to negotiate a meeting with "Robee [sic], the legendary Robert Lee, who is said to be one of the oldest living Mardi Gras Indian chiefs in New Orleans" (Smith, Mardi Gras Indians [Gretna, La., 1994], p. 10). Al Kennedy—a New Orleans native with ties to the community—eventually secured that coveted introduction. Kennedy's Chief of Chiefs: Robert Nathaniel Lee and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, 1915-2001 affectionately offers a memoir of Big Chief Robbe, or Robert Nathaniel Lee. The book begins with a survey of the motivations—his father's early death and the emasculating racism and poverty within and beyond New Orleans—that propelled ten-year-old Robbe to seek out the Mardi Gras Indians. After Robbe found a father figure in a revered chief and assumed an apprenticeship in sewing and beading Indian costumes, he quickly rose from spy boy to big chief of several famous groups, or "gangs" (p. 10). Robbe addressed the values associated with masking and the responsibilities of a chief in the gang during Mardi Gras and in the community throughout the year.
Unlike Smith's book, Kennedy's book is written for men who mask or masked and for their families and friends. Kennedy's memoir of Chief Robbe decisively turns away from academic audiences to the participants, many of whom felt their neighborhoods never profited from sharing their culture with outsiders. Kennedy also carefully honors the secrecy of the chiefs, so scholars looking for details about ritual dances, song lyrics, and gang practice sessions will be disappointed by the generalized information presented.
Because Kennedy had previously conducted interviews with Chief Robbe for an earlier book-length biography of Donald Harrison (Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians [Gretna, La., 2010]), the majority of material for Lee's biography draws from those sources. Only one new interview and the author's notes and journals documenting both personal hospital visits with Robbe and public community events inform this new biography, which explains its spartan nature. What is lost from continued personal contact with the sources is replaced with thorough archival research: Kennedy unearths 1920s and 1930s articles from the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Louisiana Weekly, characterizing Robbe particularly and his gangs generally. Ultimately, [End Page 481] Kennedy's research reaffirms the overlap between the values of prominent chiefs and the social clubs that have promoted better lives for black New Orleans families.