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New Orleans Director Jonathan Isaac Jackson brings ‘Big Chief, Black Hawk’ and the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians to the WORLD Channel and PBS

Feb 23, 2023 | Louisiana Filmmakers, Louisiana Productions

Jonathan Isaac Jackson - Big Chief Black Hawk

Mardi Gras has two different aspects to it: there’s the version that most people see, and there’s the version that a lot of people experience to a certain extent. A lot of that to me, at least, is Mardi Gras Indians and connection to the actual African culture. 


Jonathan Isaac Jackson on Beyond the Lens for PBS 

Director Jonathan Isaac Jackson is a born-and-raised New Orleans filmmaker whose films show a pronounced depth and sense of responsibility to accurately depict Black history and culture in New Orleans. His documentary Big Chief, Black Hawk immerses the viewer in “the culture” and the meaning and background behind the tradition of masking for Mardi Gras Indians.

Some say that African Americans masking as Native Americans began as homage to Native Americans giving refuge to escaped slaves to others saying that it was began as an offshoot of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Buffalo Soldiers exposure to Native Americans during America’s westward campaign. Others believe that the traditions are of African origin, and that the “suits” and chants originate from Congo Square, and masking is just a passing on of African traditions “masked” to protect tradition.


Big Chief, Black Hawk background on Mardi Gras masking history

The WORLD Channel kicked off its 11th season of America ReFramed last week with a National Premiere of Big Chief, Black Hawk. The film had screened previously around the festival circuit, including its debut at the American Black Film Festival, and its ascension to streaming on WORLD Channel and PBS has given an expansive breadth of attention to a story that may not even be common knowledge for many New Orleans locals. 

Big Chief, Black Hawk puts Terrance Williams Jr. front and center – AKA Big Chief Tee – the Big Chief of the Black Hawk Hunters Indian tribe. His tribe creates handcrafted elaborate suits each year for Mardi Gras and parade in the Mardi Gras Masking Indian tradition. Big Chief Tee is a high-school student tasked with carrying this torch of tradition for the Black and Indigenous cultures of New Orleans. His story illuminates the surrounding history of the culture, dissolving African American demographics in New Orleans, and why this tradition from the past remains integral to the future for the African American culture of New Orleans. 

On exploring the roots behind the tradition, Jackson told WORLD Channel, “We wanted to highlight culture in New Orleans, but specifically from an African American perspective and a local perspective.”

Big Chief, Black Hawk is available for streaming from anywhere on the PBS website until 2024 or watch it here on the WORLD Channel.

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