Ray “Big Chief Hatchet” Blazio, the city’s oldest-remaining Black Masking Indian chief, was laid to rest on Saturday with a massive funeral and traditional procession through the Tremé neighborhood. The event included a brass band and hundreds of feathered and beaded Black Masking Indians, also known as Mardi Gras Indians.
Blazio died June 17 at the age of 82 at his home in Gentilly.
While becoming a big chief is a life’s goal for many Indians within this uniquely New Orleans culture, Blazio first made his name as “the baddest flag boy the Indians had,” setting a high bar for intensity in that position and establishing traditions that are still observed today.
He began masking more than 70 years ago, when he created a white flag-boy suit for a tribe known as the Monogram Hunters, just as chief Alfred Montana was handing over the Hunters to his son, Allison “Tootie” Montana, who renamed the tribe, Yellow Pocahontas.
Tootie Montana is now the measure of all the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs. The city celebrates the first day of Carnival season in January as Tootie Montana Day and commissioned sculptor Sheleen Jones-Adenle to cast a statue of Montana in his feathers, which now stands in the center of Louis Armstrong Park. Montana died in 2005.
But in the 1950s and 1960s, as Montana moved into his early heyday — establishing the three-dimensional style of sewing Indian suits and pushing his culture to put aside violence and compete with their sewing needles to see who was prettiest — the man who walked ahead of him on the streets was his flag boy, Ray “Hatchet” Blazio.
Beyond the feathered-and-beaded artistry, the Indian tradition is distinguished by an elaborate choreography, a human chess game of sorts, triggered whenever two tribes meet each other in the streets. Each tribe’s spy boys trade signals from the front of the tribe back to their big chiefs, to see if the two will agree to meet face-to-face.
Until they meet, the flag boy blocks the area in front of his chief. Without a flag boy in place, a rival who is skilled at the physical game of Indian could attempt to damage his chief’s suit or, worse yet, steal the chief’s crown.
Under Blazio, that barrier was impervious. He defended it with a physical ferocity that became the stuff of myths.
Even today, in people’s memory, that time in Blazio’s Indian career stands out, as a flag boy for the ages.
“Though he became a big chief, that was not the pinnacle of his career. That’s unequivocal,” said Fred Johnson, 68, who started as a spy boy for Yellow Pochahontas at the age of 12. “When I met him, he was a flag boy. And he was a flag boy who was hard to beat. Without a doubt, he was known, hands-down, he was known, well-known,” said Johnson, who also saw a greater beauty in Blazio’s flag boy suits, than in the big chief’s suits that Blazio made later in life.
Though Blazio remained active in the culture, sewing on friends’ suits and attending Indian practices until his death, his masking days were pretty much over by the time that Reuben “Buck” Evans, 31, starting masking as a spy boy for the Black Feather tribe in 2011.
But Evans had grown up hearing about the legend, Ray Blazio. “He was the baddest flag boy the Indians had,” said Evans, who sees too many current tribes with flag boys who are nowhere near Blazio’s level. “The art of flag boy is lost right now,” he said.
Maybe the bar was set too high by Blazio and his immediate successors at flag boy in Yellow Pocahontas, Anthony “Meathead” Hingle and a young Victor Harris, who got his start at flag boy inspired by Blazio and now is Spirit of FiYiYi, the longest-masking big chief in the city, having emerged in a new suit for 57 of his 72 years.
Blazio set the tone for all who carry a flag to this day, Evans said. For instance, whenever a feather dropped from Montana’s crown, Blazio would walk over and pick it up. If someone else picked it up first, he’d demand it back.
That’s now a ceremonial part of the tradition. Across the city, whenever a flag boy picks up his chief’s feather, that’s because of Hatchet.
Blazio grew up in the section of the Seventh Ward bounded by four avenues, North Claiborne, St. Claude, Elysian Fields and St. Bernard. When he started masking, there was only one tribe in the Seventh Ward, the Yellow Pocahontas. The house that Tootie Montana bought stands within that area, on North Villere Street. And so many Indians lived nearby that people still refer to that part of town as “Injunland.”
Blazio’s house at 1911 Pauger St., near Pauger and Marais, was well-established as the place where Indians could sew, brag about Indian escapades and be fed by his mother, Dorothy Montgomery, who worked by day at Scalfini’s, a local Italian restaurant. Their family home stood just a few steps away from a bar room where the Monogram Hunters were founded and where they held Indian practice. A young Ray became interested in his community’s art and first made a suit with the help of his uncle, Howard Mandolph, a well-known vibraphone player who also masked Indian.
Viola Russell, the mother of his oldest three children, the late Ray Jr., Yolanda Blazio and Nolan Blazio, became his most reliable needle when Blazio reached adulthood. She remembers that Blazio asked his mother to cook so that Russell could continuously sew. “Don’t stop sewing,” he’d tell Russell, who said that he would even give her a sideways look if she needed to take too many bathroom breaks.
Russell went to the library to research buttons they could use as materials or to find accurate images of fish or chariots or anything else he wanted to feature on his suits. Then the two of them would work late nights together sewing until 3 a.m. because she understood his vision, she said. “His goal was, ‘When I walk out, it’s going to change the world. It will alter the atmosphere.’ And I still remember throwing open the doors and hearing the murmur of the crowd. That ‘Ahhh.’”
To learn how to sing and dance in the tradition, a young Fred Johnson would ride to Sunday Indian practices with Blazio, who would be dressed in neatly pressed outfits usually ornamented with a stickpin and diamonds, seated behind the wheel of his white Chevrolet Impala. Though Blazio was barely 5 feet tall, he was stocky, and his presence — and passion for the Indian call-and-response-style music — always commanded attention.
“He was an Indian all his life,” said Johnson, who would visit Blazio to sing, as Blazio became more frail, in recent years.
“He had that music and tradition in his blood. He was possessed with it,” Johnson said.
But in the 1960s, when Johnson was getting his start as an Indian, no Black-masking Indian records had yet been made. So once at the house on Pauger, the stereo seemed to only play either Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin records, said Johnson, who was taught by Blazio and other elders what Charles was singing in his lyrics and why. “They wanted me to understand the world,” Johnson said.
In the late 1960s, Blazio married Leona Adams, who grew up in an Indian family, whose brother Joe Pete Adams was a well-known flag boy with the White Eagles tribe and later a chief of the Seminole Hunters tribe. Adams was an X-ray technician at Charity Hospital and Blazio met her while doing deliveries for Tulane Hospital. When their first daughter was born, in 1969, they moved into a house on Foy Street in Gentilly and he decided to take a hiatus from masking.
Though he stayed connected to the culture, he would not resume masking again until 1991 when that daughter, now Rachelle Blazio Blouin, was in college and her younger sister, Renita Blazio, was in high school.
In the meantime, he unloaded banana boats on the river and worked construction, helping to put the roof on the Superdome. He also became known as a numbers man, his daughter Rachelle said, recalling that her dad ran gambling establishments within the Seventh Ward, on Laharpe and Law Streets.
Jeremy Stevenson, 42, who’s now chief of the Monogram Hunters, the former Montana tribe, remembers being sent with money to Blazio’s gambling shack behind Circle Foods by his grandmother, who liked to play the ponies.
“My grandma would send me around there, listen to the races on the radio and then send my uncles back to collect if she won,” said Stevenson, who remembers how Blazio, during his second stint of masking, would emerge from the gambling shack on Mardi Gras as big chief of the Wild Apaches tribe, which was considered one of the first “renegade” tribes, because it was formed by Indians who splintered off from the Yellow Pocahontas.
Stevenson also remembers Blazio putting emphasis on younger Indians, who were required to dress correctly, especially for the last Indian practice on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, when Blazio — known as a real dresser — used to sometimes arrive at the bar room in a three-piece suit. “Of his 10 fingers, eight had medallion rings,” Stevenson remembers. “And you would never see Hatchet in the same outfit twice.”
Out of that door came Blazio in now-famed suits: the burnt-orange suit with carousels on it and the turquoise suit featuring all sorts of marine life, sewed in 1992, in honor of the opening of the Audubon Aquarium.
Blazio chose carefully when it came to Wild Apaches personnel, stealing Franklin “Wingy” Davis from Yellow Pocahontas to be his spy boy and putting his best friend, Huey “Boss” Journee, at the crucial flag position. Journee knew Blazio so well that he can recite a million small details about him — “He only ate chicken breasts, don’t try to bring him any other part of the chicken. He had a taste for sweets; he always kept hard candies in his pocket.”
But Journee, now 68, said that he was placed at the flag position because he was the person who had persuaded Blazio to begin masking again. He also hosted Indian practices for the tribe at his bar room, Boss’ Place on Pauger Street.
In those days, Tyrone Yancy, 56, now spy boy for Yellow Pocahontas, also masked with Wild Apache. “Hatchet was a firm chief,” Yancy said. “He said what he said and he meant what he said. But his foundation had already been laid as first flag boy of the Yellow Pocahontas. That’s where he made the most noise at. And so that’s what he’s remembered for today.”
At his funeral, that was clear. Some attendees had known Blazio. “He was one of the people who made the way for us to be here now. Council Chief Wayne “Stretch” Washington, of the Black Hatchet tribe in the Ninth Ward, 53, who has known Blazio all his life.
But many more people simply knew of Blazio. “There are so many stories,” said flag boy Gus “Gusto” Evans, 44, of the Black Hatchet tribe.
“And I have high regard for him mostly because I have met so many Indians who came up under him and so it became clear to me that his teaching was good.”
Wildman Tariq Harris, 31, also only knew of Blazio by reputation but he arrived at the funeral with his entire Creole Osceola tribe. “Indians don’t live forever,” he said. “But when we die, our Indian doesn’t die. That’s eternal.”
This story, produced by Verite News, was originally published July 10, 2022, by WVUE.
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