The Amistad Research Center is pleased to announce the acquisition of the family papers of long-time Mardi Gras Indian, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. The papers highlight the cultural contributions of the Harrison family of New Orleans, particularly the practice of masking in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Dating from 1977 to 2017, the collection is rich in ephemera and photographs covering lectures and performances by Donald Harrison Sr. and the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians. Additionally, promotional materials for his son, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., and his grandson, trumpeter Christian Scott, are also part of the collection.
Donald Harrison Sr. (1933-1998), was a longtime Mardi Gras Indian and founder of the Guardians of the Flame tribe. Mr. Harrison was a former Big Chief of the Creole Wild West, Cherokee Braves, and White Eagles tribes before he organized the Guardians of the Flame in 1988. Harrison’s interest in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition stemmed from childhood after witnessing a street performance by Wild Man Herman Palmer of the Creole Wild West. His childhood found him following the neighborhood Uptown Indian tribes to learn the traditions, and he began beading outfits at age 12. He masked for the first time as an Indian for Carnival in 1949. He studied the history of indigenous communities and, while stationed at Fort Niagara in New York during the early 1950s, he frequently visited the Seneca reservation. During these visits, he learned ceremonial dances that he incorporated into his own performances.
As Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, he performed and lectured throughout the United States, and often visited local public schools to present the tradition to students. An avid lover of jazz, Harrison recorded with his son on Donald Harrison Jr.'s Indian Blues album, and also recorded with Percussion Incorporated and appeared on a WWOZ Radio compilation CD. He toured Europe, lecturing at a university in Germany, and performed with visiting groups from New Zealand and at an Academy Awards party in Los Angeles. In 1997, he was awarded the Mayor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Arts Council of New Orleans.
Harrison worked for the U.S. Postal Service for nine years, earning a Distinguished Service Award. He was also an executive board member and president of Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Employees Local Union No. 166. He is survived by his wife, Herreast J. Harrison; three daughters, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Michele J. Harrison, and Cara Harrison; his son, Donald Harrison Jr.; a brother, Edwin F. Harrison Sr.; two sisters, Yvonne Combre and Gloria Lee; and four grandchildren.
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