Mardi Gras Indians — as the Black maskers are often known — don't bow down. Not to rival tribes, not to the storms, floods and evacuations that threaten New Orleans’ traditions. And not to cancer either.
Dianne Honoré, the Big Queen of the Yellow Pocahontas Black Masking Indian tribe, is fighting cancer with the “pristine and pretty” pink suit she produced for Mardi Gras morning, “with every kind of jewels and pearls you can imagine” sewn into the design.
Her glittering crown is looped with beaded pink ribbons, the symbol for breast cancer awareness. The suit, she said, commemorates the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis with the potentially fatal disease that affects so many women. And men.
The suit will be on display again — with some revisions — when the Yellow Pocahontas tribe heads out on St. Joseph's night, Sunday (March 19).
The psychology of cancer
Honoré said the doctor’s eyes popped when she determined that a once-tiny lump had grown to the size of a lemon in just two months. A mastectomy and chemo brought the crisis under control. But, she said, the fear of a recurrence is never far from her mind.
“It can be nothing. 'My back hurts; has it metastasized?'” she said.
“Every day,” she said, “you think it’s going to come back. That’s the psychology.”
And in Honoré's case, the obsession is especially understandable. Her 2012 diagnosis with breast cancer at age 48 was the third time she’d had to face that universally dreaded news.
At age 26, she had a small but dangerous tumor removed from another area. And as a 17-year-old she had a malignancy removed from behind her jaw. She doesn't say much about the specifics.
But the fear of another cancer episode is like a lifelong addiction, always out there waiting, she said.
Somebody’s gotta sew, sew, sew
In a way, facing her addiction to apprehension was part of the suit-making process. Honoré said finishing the project took eight months, if you count drawing up the design, sewing it, attaching the custom-dyed feathers and “thousands and thousands of beads.”
She said she wishes people knew what’s required to produce a suit of this caliber. “Sometimes you want to scream and throw it against the wall,” she said.
“It’s not something you can watch TV to,” she said of the endless scissoring, and stitching. “It forces you to meditate.”
As she worked, Honoré often contemplated her survival. Naturally, some of her introspection was gloomy. “It’s never really over,” she concluded.
But more often, her thoughts were defiant. “I think about it as a fight,” she said. “I had to learn that at a young age. You can’t just let it take control of your life. A lot of it is mental.”
Growing up downtown
Honoré grew up in the 6th Ward, on North Robertson Street near Esplanade Avenue. General Russel Honoré, who commanded federal military efforts in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is a first cousin, once removed.
Her family owned Hank’s Bar and restaurant, which was a crossroads. “It was a mixture of people,” she said. “There were all types coming into our restaurant, politicians, people from around the world, or Joe from down the block.”
In that cross-cultural milieu, she learned to butterfly a shrimp, shuck an oyster, stew a chicken and slow-simmer a Creole gumbo. All while attending the St. Louis Cathedral School in the French Quarter, then Redeemer High School and then UNO.
Eventually, she became a nurse, training at the Delgado Charity School of Nursing.
The high point and the low point of her nursing career were simultaneous. After Hurricane Katrina, the Slidell skilled nursing facility where she worked, like so many medical institutions, was stranded in chaos, with the staff struggling to care for patients.
“You just stand up and you walk through it,” she said of the harrowing experience.
An unexpected Indian theme
Honoré’s passion has always been the Creole culture that she grew up in. These days, she helps profess and preserve that heritage as cooking instructor and historical interpreter.
She also founded the Black Storyville Baby Dolls masking group, and the Amazons Benevolent Society, a Carnival parade marching group and service organization, with several cancer survivors among its members.
Honoré said the Amazons, whose mythical namesakes were known for their fierce, fearless personas, were meant to show those living with cancer that they weren’t alone but were part of an army of warriors.
“It was to show people you don’t have to stay down and out,” she said.
Three years ago, Honoré began masking Indian, an utterly unique New Orleans custom that blends garment-making, singing and street ritual.
Over the decades, most Black Masking Indian suits have featured Native American themes, increasingly mixed with African motifs. But the art form allows for other expression. In recent years, suits have appeared with surprise subject matter as far-ranging as 1990s New Orleans rappers, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” the Nation of Islam, Harriet Tubman and bygone businesses and landmarks that ain’t dere no more.
Honoré’s 2023 cancer awareness suit and the matching design worn by her tribe’s Big Chief Darryl Montana fall into that unexpected category.
Never enough time
Black Masking Indians make a new suit each year, and show them in public only a handful of times, on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s night, during Super Sunday parades and sometimes Jazz Fest. That’s it.
Honoré and Montana debuted their pink suits almost a month ago. Onlookers were doubtlessly impressed by the craftsmanship. But to their eyes, the spectacular creations weren’t exactly, absolutely, precisely perfect.
Honoré and Montana are the type who notice when the angle between a pair of hackle feather shanks isn’t symmetrical.
And when you adjust a flawed hackle, you probably have to peel off the cotton candy strands of downy feathers on the borders. And before you do all that, you might need cut through the satin shoulder straps that hold the suit together, and let it come to pieces. In other words, to perfect a suit, you might have to ruin it.
And, of course, perfection is ultimately impossible.
“There’s never enough time,” Honoré said. When she strides onto the streets on St. Joseph’s night, her suit will “be a little bit better.”
“But, it’s never quite what you want it to be,” she said.
For Honoré, the arduous, never-quite-complete suit-making process is an echo of her repeated combat with cancer and other challenges.
“Making a suit by yourself is pretty miraculous,” she said. “The strength is the underlying message. It’s a connection to my ancestors and all they went through, and all I’ve gone through.”
To catch Honoré and the Yellow Pocahontas, scout the Seventh Ward starting between 5 and 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 19.
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