Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors

In 2011, the Neighborhood Story Project began working with Jeffrey Ehrenreich, a cultural anthropologist at the University of New Orleans, and members of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, on a collaborative ethnography. Jeffrey had spent the last 15 years photographing them as part of a visual anthropology project, and asked Rachel to be involved in helping the four principal members of the group—the big chief of the tribe, Victor Harris; the commissioner of the sewing table, Collins “Coach” Lewis; the master sewer, Jack Robertson; and the master drummer, Wesley Phillips—to develop their life histories.

 

As a group made up of Mardi Gras Indians, musicians, and anthropologists, we created lists of questions and then recorded stories of their experiences in neighborhoods of New Orleans, and the world of Mardi Gras Indian sewing, drumming, and performing.

 

Jeffrey is one of a number of photographers who have developed a body of work documenting the tribe’s activities but his lens goes beyond the public performances that are usually documented to the day-to-day experiences and annual cycles involved in this form of creative practice. He brings a sensitivity to detail that comes from a background in ethnography. The only other photographer who worked as closely with Fi Yi Yi is Michael P. Smith, who photographed the first year of the tribe in 1984. As Jeffrey began to develop a relationship with the group, Coach was quick to remind him of the lineage of photographers that came before, and the power dynamics that could develop between photographers and their subjects. He also recognized the complexity of these relationships.

 

As he talked about other Mardi Gras Indians’ perspective on the role of “outsiders” like Smith, Coach reflected on the Indians’ negative feelings toward photographers, which he did not necessary share:

 

Michael Smith paid the price. He really took a whipping. We felt sorry for him. All of them people come through us, and I get charged with that, too. They say I brought a lot white folks …But that was people that was utilizing, that had to be utilized. You can’t always be used.

Just like Smith, Jeffrey’s interest in the group was largely centered on the spirituality embedded in the practice of creating the suits and also in the performances. With his research on shamanism in different cultures around the world, he was interested exploring how what the group called “spirit work” could be understood as healing.

 

Coach hoped that in working on the Neighborhood Story Project book together, they could develop a deeper dialogue about Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors’s performances and Jeffrey’s cross-cultural investigations of shamanism. Since Coach’s unexpected death, we have worked with the Backstreet Cultural Museum to create Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors