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Dow Edwards a.k.a. Spy Boy Dow's "Buffalo Soldier Suit" will be on display at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Houston, Texas indefinitely. Edwards  is a member of the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe and holds one of its most important positions.  The prominent “Spy Boy” comes from a family that understood the importance of the Indian masking tradition.  In the Edwards household, Mardi Gras was a family affair.  The base camp for the family’s Carnival revelry was at his grandmother’s home on Baronne Street in between 6th and 7th Streets near St. Charles Avenue.  The family started their day watching the major parades: Rex and Zulu.  Later in the day and over the protests of his grandmother, his father would take him to see the Indians.  Listening to his father debate his grandmother about the value of seeing the Indians made the gangs appear mysterious and intriguing.  They witnessed the meeting of two tribes at Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks Hall on Harmony Street. To young eyes, it was fascinating and scary to see men welding hatchets and feathers.  As a child he thought they were actually fighting, but later in life he came to learn their performances were about pageantry and about being able to demonstrate what is required to successfully compete against other men.  That ignited a lifelong desire to see the Indians every Mardi Gras and to someday become a member of the tribe.

In 1989, through a colleague at work Spy Boy Dow met Chief Tyrone Casby.  The chief readily welcomed him into the tribe.  But when confronted with actually having to make a suit, it seemed too daunting a task.  When Spy Boy Dow considered his professional and family responsibilities he did not see how he could take on such responsibility.  While the desire remained, he would not become a member until years later.

In the meantime, Spy Boy Dow concentrated on his career.  In1983 he played with the New England Patriots.  He fulfilled his commitment to the U. S. government by serving in the military.  From there he went to work for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company where a supervisor recognized his talent for critical thinking and analysis and recommended that he pursue a career in law.   From Liberty Mutual Spy Boy Dow held a job as a paralegal for a law firm until he made the decision to attend Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge where he finished fifth in his class and landed a clerkship with the Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  Today, he is a partner in the law firm of Irwin, Fritchie, Urquhart and Moore LLC.

It was the catastrophic destruction of the city from hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and his desire to be of service to the Indians that led to his involvement with the Mohawk Hunters.  As the recovery of the city got under way, he became aware of a push by some involved in the recovery, to take away the cultural identity of the Mardi Gras Indian traditions.  He feared that the Mardi Gras Indians would not have a voice that would give them access to equal representation in those influential circles.  He wanted to be in a position to be of potential assistance.  This led him back to Chief Casby to ask to become a member of his tribe, but that still required that he would have to make his own suit.

Though Spy Boy Dow did not have any bead-sewing skills, he had gained sartorial skills from his parents.  His mother was a school teacher and a seamstress.  From her he learned how to cut out patterns and to sew them.  His father repaired shoes and taught him how to work with leather.  Chief Casby taught him to bead.  In the quiet setting of the chief’s backyard, he provided his new Spy Boy with a design on cardboard, some sequence, beads, and thread.  The chief showed him how to outline the patch and to fill it in with sequence and thread.  Having grown up in Uptown New Orleans, Spy Boy Dow adopted the traditional Uptown pictorial style of beading.  Once his chief showed him how to “stick the crown,” he had the skills necessary to design his own suits.

His ideas for images are derived from the historic relationship that Native American tribes have with escaped slaves.  The Mardi Gras Indian community pays homage in their costumes to those that helped to free the enslaved people and to those who gave them refuge in their camps outside the city.  His past suits have featured the thunderbirds, buffalo and eagles, and wolves.  All are spiritual animals for the Native Americans.  He selects the color schemes, the pictorial scenes and the symmetry of the suit. 

Making a suit has become a very spiritual process because it causes him to constantly reflect on what his ancestors had to go through not only as slaves, but in the city of New Orleans.  “The reasons the Indians are out there is because black folks could not go out on St. Charles Avenue and participate in the Mardi Gras parades.  The only thing they could do was light the pathways for the parades and to assist Caucasians as they had a good time on Mardi Gras.  In an effort to give our community something to celebrate on Mardi Gras day, the Indians would go out along with the Baby Dolls.  They gave the people an opportunity to have fun and enjoy themselves.”  When he puts on the suit that carries the legacy of the past it creates in him, a spiritual awakening.  “When I put the suit on, there is an energy and spirituality that takes over.  I can do things I didn’t think I could.”  The rhythm of drum takes over his thoughts and his body moves in response.  “I don’t know how to explain it.  Me inside the suit is different than me outside the suit.”  Another satisfaction comes when he meets other Indians and shows them his work.  “You compare your work with their work and it is the thrill of competition and the agony of defeat.”

Being a Spy Boy and Mardi Gras Indian outshines all his other accomplishments.  “I have done a lot of things in my life.  I have played college football and participated in the national championships in track and field. I have played with the NFL.  I have been an officer in the 82nd airborne division. I am a lawyer.  But there is no more glorious feeling than I felt the first time and every time since I put on my suit on Mardi Gras day. The thrill comes in showing the suit he has made to the people and in paying homage to his ancestors and to the Indians.  It is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. “I build my own suit and proudly display that I am a Mardi Gras Indian from New Orleans Louisiana.”

While he derives satisfaction from the competition to make the best suit and to stand out among all the other Indians, he notes that “Spy Boys perform their duties for the glorification of the Big Chief.”  According to Spy Boy Dow, Big Chief Casby is a leader who has compassion for the members of the tribe while simultaneously holding high expectations for them.  Chief Casby expects members to be disciplined, to pursue education and training, and for the members of his tribe to make their suits themselves.  Chief Casby’s character has earned him Spy Bow Dow’s respect and admiration.  The large number of followers and members of the tribe is a testimony to the quality of Big Chief Casby’s leadership. 

Spy Boy Dow is a leader who puts the interests of the cultural community at the center of his life because it is part of his philosophy on resolving the city’s social problems.  “We cannot police our way out of the crime situation we are in.  The crime situation has a lot to do with the children having a lack of hope, lack of education and a lack of extra-curricular activities.”  He joined the Mardi Gras Indians to give the tribes a cultural voice and he joined the Langston Hughes Academy Charter School board of directors in order to help the children obtain the exposure to people in various professions.  Spy Boy Dow believes that role models help to expand children’s knowledge about what they can achieve in their lives. 

His apprentice is a 12 year old boy who was mesmerized by his suit during Super Sunday and wanted to know how he could be like him.  Spy Boy Dow asked, “You want to know how to be a lawyer like me or an Indian like me, or both?”  With the help of Spy Boy Dow, his apprentice has been learning to sew a patch and he has been learning how to balance his school work and his extracurricular activities.

Spy Boy Dow’s message to youth is this: “You can do anything you set your mind to.  The opportunities in life are limitless.  Dare to dream and put in the work to achieve the dream.”

Articles

November 28, 2017

https://www.thrillist.com/travel/new-orleans/the-spots-that-transformed-nolas-arts-district


Caption: Andy J. Scott

 

September 7, 2016

http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/education/higher-education/university-of-iowa-seeks-to-name-new-dorm-after-african-american-artist-20160907

We are happy to see Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall, named after distinguished alumna Elizabeth Catlett, who lived off-campus because the school did not permit blacks to live in the dorms. Despite the commute, Catlett was among three UI students to earn the first Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees in the United States in 1940. She also was the first African-American woman to receive an MFA. While at UI, her roommate was novelist and poet, Margaret Walker and she studied with American artist, Grant Wood.


Caption: Catlett in Stella Jones Gallery by EPaul Julien