How the lives of these culturally rooted people has been entwined with the carnival and what it means to uphold that sentiment though decades.
In the 1990s, the skeleton tradition had nearly gone extinct from the streets of New Orleans. North Side Skull and Bones Gang has had a history of two centuries. And according to The Advocate, Tuesday saw the 200th anniversary of the gang celebrated by Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes - the current chief of the gang, who is also in charge of passing the tradition to the next generation.
What is this tradition of becoming a skeleton that has been passed down by a handful of people? Barnes had reportedly asked when Albert Morris had approached him with the idea of masking skeleton.
Barnes, 55, an Arkansas-born musician who moved to the city in the 1990s, had debated masking as a Mardi Gras Indian because he was close friends with Donald Harrison Sr., big chief of the Guardians of the Flame tribe.
However, what is accepted by a lot of people in Treme is that for generations, skeletons and Indians both roamed the streets of African-American communities on Mardi Gras Day, part of community-masking customs that centered more on neighborhoods than on the grand pageantry of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue, where black citizens weren’t welcome.
Morris had explained that the bone gang had originated in 1819. “The story goes that the merchant marine brought the tradition into the city and that he started masking in what we now call Treme, which was on the north side of what was considered the city then — basically the French Quarter,” Barnes told The Advocate.
While the merchant marine's origins are shrouded in mystery, the time was such that the city took in a lot of people from Haiti, Cuba, and other parts of the United States. So there are multiple theories about it.
“I believe that image traveled out of the Caribbean to the port city of New Orleans,” Ronald Lewis said while Zohar Israel sees Caribbean and African roots.
Reportedly, During Barnes’ recent travels to Africa, he saw skeleton-like spirits and voodoo markets. That gave him a greater sense of the tradition’s African roots and supplied him with an animal skull that he’s incorporated into this year’s mask.
According to The Advocate, John McCusker - a jazz historian - had found references to the skeletons dating back to 1875. When Morris learned the tradition from his own big chief, Big Arthur Regis, he was taught to pass it along.
He felt proud that he’d risen to the challenge, not long before he died in 2011. “I feel a certain peace, knowing that North Side will live on,” he said.
The symbol and the story is about how people celebrated, despite being in times when they were discriminated against. Men of color had found a way to live in the vibe of Mardi Gras and do it with style. And each new member to the North Side has come to the fore with their own stories.
The Advocate reports how Lewis, 67, brought memories of bonemen who “ran around with those bloody bones” from childhood visits to the 6th Ward on Mardi Gras.
The self-made historian, who runs the House of Dance & Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward, feels a different kind of joy when Mardi Gras celebrations take place while waking up the neighbors.
“You know why I feel powerful?” Lewis said. “Because I’m part of history.”
Royce Osborn, another skeleton, also recalled his roots of seeing the skeletons from the 7th ward. And he had been handed a paper-mâché skull made for him by a former skeleton, Big Chief Tootie Montana, who by then was being touted as “the prettiest” Indian in town.
In 2003, Osborn’s PBS documentary, “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” prompted a wave of new interest in Indians and some then-waning black Carnival traditions, including skeletons and baby dolls.
Skeleton Michael Crutcher, 49, remembers seeing a resurgence after Osborn’s documentary aired. New baby dolls hit the street, WWOZ broadcast live from Treme, and the North Side Skull and Bone Gang woke up the neighborhood with a gang that had grown to about a half-dozen.
Topped with massive paper skulls or frightening headpieces made of bone, the North Side gang tromps through the streets of old Treme and the 7th Ward, calling out their catch-phrase, “You Next!” alternated with an occasional “The End is Near!”
As they walk, they call on the spirits of New Orleans and Africa, Israel said. “We’re death angels, warning people before they begin their big day — ‘If you do too much of what you’re out there doing, you’re going to come see us.’”