No other French Market vendor shows up for work wearing plumes and carrying a tambourine.

Walter Sandifer, Jr., 57, is a trailblazer of sorts. He’s the first known Mardi Gras Indian* vendor in the French Market’s famous flea market, located at the edge of the French Quarter. 

Within the Indian culture, Sandifer believes that he represents a new, more flexible generation. Some elders within the Indian community believe that nothing from their suits or their culture should be sold, because of the tradition’s secrecy and spirituality, he said. But Sandifer sees it as a way to spread the culture. 

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Video by Katy Reckdahl, edited by Nigell Moses

In some ways, Sandifer’s road to the market may have been paved by a 2021 study commissioned by the French Market Corporation, which recommended that the market amplify its focus on New Orleans culture “through an equity lens.” 

Sandifer, who is known as Big Chief Beautiful, feels like he benefited from that study when he appeared last spring before a committee of vendors, hoping to get his license approved. When his application was considered, he said, a French Market administrator spoke up for him, emphasizing that tourists go to the market hoping to see people like him, who represent Black New Orleans community culture. 

The food section on the upriver-side of the French Market is held down by Black-run hubs like Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, Chef Marilyn Doucette’s Meals From the Heart Cafe, and Arthur Humphrey’s World Famous N’awlins Cafe and Spice Emporium. But on the downriver side, Sandifer said, the flea market seems to have a lower proportion of native New Orleanian vendors – and even fewer representing Black New Orleans culture.

Sandifer was approved in April as a vendor within the “home decor” category. He sells photographs of himself and his tribe printed on tiles or in frames edged with small colored feathers and fluffy marabou. He also offers some of his own beadwork, a few pieces sewn with rhinestones and set inside framed jewel boxes. And for $10, people can pose for a photo with the chief himself. 

Learning the rules

Walter Sandifer sports his French Market District vendor badge on his colorful Mardi Gras Indian costume. Credit: Verite

In his off-hours, Sandifer has been keeping his sewing needle busy. He’s currently creating his 29th beaded-and-plumed suit, which he will debut on Mardi Gras morning. He has made a suit for 28 straight years, first with the Red, White and Blue tribe, then with Creole Wild West before he started his own tribe, the Creole Apache.

But at the market, Sandifer is a newbie, who is still learning the rules of being a vendor. And at first blush, the French Market’s vendor rules seemed arbitrary to him – and nobody around him could explain them to him, he said. No one from the French Market Corporation returned calls for this story.

For instance, even though most of his customers are out-of-towners who want to bring home a piece of the city’s culture, Sandifer cannot print the words “New Orleans” on any of his wares – that’s only allowed for vendors who are approved in the “souvenir” category.

The market’s handbook also describes limits for the type of music vendors can play in their booths. So Sandifer keeps it a little low key as he sings traditional Indian songs like “Ooh Na Nay” or plays his tambourine. “Nobody has said anything, but I’m trying to abide by the rules and regulations, to exist in the market,” he said. “I just try to keep anything I do down to a minimum.”

If he could, Sandifer would also like to sell T-shirts, bearing his own photo or those of his tribal members. But to avoid being over-run by T-shirts and “souvenirs” bearing the words New Orleans, the number of vendors who can sell those was capped in the 1990s – and no new vendors have been accepted in almost 30 years in the T-shirt category and similarly long periods in other popular categories like machine-made jewelry, socks, caps, neckties, or aprons. 

The 2021 study specifically took a longer look at T-shirt limits in an analysis that noted the downside of these vendor limits, which have tolerated “in some cases undesirable and unimaginative products” and left shoppers “with a selection that has grown tired and has far too little competition.” The analysis concluded that T-shirts can be “valid vessels to express local culture” and suggested spurring innovation through “new dynamics” such as T-shirt popups, design contests and installations about the history of cotton, “both its brutal history … and the crop’s beauty.”

Sandifer got some advice last week from fellow vendor Dana Tharp, president of the vendor committee, who has sold New Orleans T-shirts and sweatshirts of his own design here for more than three decades. One option, Tharp said, is that Sandifer might be able to make a proposal to the committee that he sell one specific T-shirt, bearing an image of his tribe. 

Sandifer said he will likely go before the committee – but not until after Mardi Gras, he said. “I may be a vendor at the market now,” he said, “But at this time of year, finishing my Indian suit is my number-one priority,” he said.

* Sandifer stands by the term “Mardi Gras Indians,” while others who practice the tradition insist that the proper term is Black masking Indians.

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Katy Reckdahl joins Verite after working as a staff reporter for The Times-Picayune and the alt-weekly Gambit before spending a decade as a freelancer, writing frequently for the New Orleans Advocate |...