#11. I met Big Chief Tootie Montana (New Orleans, 2003)

Famous People I Have Met
4 min readJan 29, 2020


I still have this old cassette tape of then-80-year-old Big Chief Allison “Tootie” recalling his long life leading Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. He didn’t answer my questions directly, just talked and talked: a faucet of history that could maybe be turned on and off, but couldn’t be guided in any particular direction. Between this, his thick New Orleans accent, and the warbly analog tape, I can’t understand much when I listen to it now. Still, it documents one of the more magical experiences of my New Orleans life.

While maybe not exactly world-famous, Tootie remains, even in his death, the most famous of all Mardi Gras Indians.

My friend, float painter Daniel Fusilier, was at the time painting Tootie’s giant face and that of his loyal wife Joyce, onto the second floor of my friend Antionette K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law Lounge” in Treme. In the process of writing about Daniel for Oxford American, I was invited into Tootie’s home to watch him sew his “comeback suit.” Or rather, to watch Joyce sew it.

A few years prior, Tootie had publicly retired, but now felt the game needed him. His new golden yellow feathered suit lay on a table in a back room, its beads gleaming silver under bright sewing lamps, as Joyce worked over a giant magnifying glass and her husband talked history.

Tootie was famous as a peacemaker among the Indians, back when the tribes fought physical wars, rather than artistic ones. “I’m glad they changed... Now they fight with their costume,” Tootie told OffBeat magazine’s Michael Tisserand in 1994. “Uptown Indians considered the Downtown Indians their enemy [and vice versa]. So when they’re practicing, they’re just like soldiers in boot camp — they’re training for war… The same tribe that I’m pulling today, the Yellow Pocahontas, would cross that Magnolia Bridge…and that’s when the shooting would be going on… They’d have the shotguns decorated.”

Tootie’s Treme duplex shotgun home was unique, half of it stuffed with Indian memorabilia. The couple’s French colonial furniture remained covered in plastic. Tootie’s occupation had been as a “lather”: a sculptor of the decorative steel, often covered in plaster, that can still be seen in some older New Orleans hotels, restaurants, and homes. You don’t meet many (any?) lathers anymore. Tootie had sculpted custom convex shapes, like the tops of columns, into most corners of his living room walls.

Lathing also influenced his unique 3D Indian suits depicted in all the colorful photos lining said walls. As he explained to Tisserand in 1994, “[Lathing] had a lot to do with how I make my suit — like, breaking circles down into so many equal parts… I make my suit the way a building is put up… That’s the reason why I knew how to bend and shape the iron, because I was used to doing it with cardboard.”

I interviewed Tootie at his sewing table, beside his busy wife. Tootie said his eyes were “gone” and he couldn’t sew the small beads anymore. The whole neighborhood would attend sewing parties at the house, to help the couple implant millions of the tiniest beads. “We don’t use no hot glue like some of the other guys,” Tootie bragged. Mardi Gras Indians remain intensely competitive, and most of our interview consisted of him explaining who made weak suits, and why his were so much better. And n fact they were better. Prettier.

Tootie, who died a little over one year later, did not live to see Katrina flood their beautiful home. I remember, while evacuated to Florida in 2005, watching New Orleans flood on TV, and I barely recognized the city — until I finally spotted the colorful Mother-in-Law Lounge, water lapping against its second floor, just beneath Tootie and Joyce’s chins.

Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.

Big Chief Tootie Montana and his wife Joyce at home, working on an Indian suit



Famous People I Have Met

A document of encounters with around 100 folks whose names u likely know, by writer & journalist, Michael Patrick Welch. Some were great, some meh.