The Lower 9th Ward was arguably the epicenter of the massive flooding that followed the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina on Aug 29, 2005. While the neighborhood will forever be marked by that epic event, it’s not all that identifies this historic and intrinsic part of New Orleans. This week, in the first of a new “Voices” feature, NolaVie speaks with some of the residents of the Lower Nine, about their lives there, the people there, the community there. Today we talk to Lower 9 resident Ronald Lewis, who created The House of Feathers, a cultural museum in the Lower 9th, with his personal collection of items pertaining to African heritage, Mardi Gras, the storytelling tradition, black Indians, Mardi Gras Indians and Hurricane Katrina.
The House of Dance and Feathers sits at the end of a long concrete driveway at the rear of 1317 Tupelo Street in the Lower 9th Ward. Visitors arrive by appointment, and step up to a wraparound deck where a tumble of memorabilia hints at the treasures within — signs (“Come in a stranger and leave a friend”), flags, crab traps, an old wooden pirogue, an alligator skin.
Walk through the glass side door, thickly papered with labels, bumper stickers and posters, and the overwhelming assault on the senses continues. Walls are lined with photographs, shelves piled with books, cases crowded with beaded and feathered Indian costumes, baskets, dolls, umbrellas, hats, Muses shoes (including a 2015 green sequined boot)…. The floor is covered with a Deco-designed Flavor Paper wall-paper.
Ronald Lewis, 63, Mardi Gras Indian, retired streetcar track repairman, father, grandfather, and greatgrandfather, has spent a lifetime amassing the thousands of items in this personal backyard repository named for “what we do on the street and how we create it.”
“This is a people’s place,” say Lewis. “It’s how I give back to my community and city. This is like a small town. I went to school with everybody around here, and now I’m seeing their grandchildren.”
Born and raised in his beloved Lower 9, Lewis has participated in its culture – and collected its keepsakes – his entire life.
“Over time, the collection just grew, until it couldn’t stay in the house any more,” Lewis says. “So I started the House of Dance and Feathers in 2002. That’s my story.”
If the museum looks like a hodgepodge of random odds and ends … think again. The House of Dance and Feathers represents storytelling at its most compelling – a carefully accumulated and thoughtfully arranged collection that divulges the history of a culture, and the story of a neighborhood. A former spy boy who has marched with both the Seminole and Choctaw tribes, Lewis knows as much about Mardi Gras Indian lore as anyone alive.
“If you look at it historically, the blacks in slavery and the Native Americans did have common ties,” he says, launching into an explanation of the 19th-century beginnings of the Mardi Gras Indian culture in New Orleans. “One people had been taken from their land, and the other taken off their land. They were connected cross-culturally.”
The Mardi Gras Indian culture, he believes, remains alive and well. He’s written a book about it, the first, he saysm to chronicle the Indians “from the inside.” He still picks up a thin needle from time to time to work tiny, colorful beads into a familiar Mardi Gras Indian tapestry.
Hurricane Katrina took “everything but my spirit.” His home of 35 years had 14 feet of water, and the only museum items he saved were a few photo albums and some personal Mardi Gras Indian beadwork that he took into exile.
A year after the storm, he returned to the family home. “I gutted it and brought my life back,” he says. The people of the neighborhood followed.
“The spirit of the people won’t be denied. As the culture revived itself, people started to donate artifacts to me. Visitors still send me stuff through the mail.”
Since Katrina, Lewis has been interviewed by NPR, and his museum mentioned in The New York Times. He’s one of the “Nine Lives” documented by author Don Baum in the critically acclaimed post-Katrina book. Visitors to the House of Dance and Feathers have included French actor Gerard Depardieu and the band The Foo Fighters.
Katrina launched his calling as an unofficial ambassador of his neighborhood. “I tried to tell the world that we were Americans, not refugees,” Lewis says. “The Lower 9 was the last place to come back. They didn’t recognize our value, of having such a large home-ownership – 70 percent. The community looked at us like we were looking for a handout.”
The people of the Lower 9th Ward knew better, Lewis says. “There are many more like me in this neighborhood, rebuilding, one house and one family at a time. There’s a bumper sticker that says ‘Now Orleans, Love It or Leave It.’ That’s how I feel about the Lower 9. This is our semi-island, where we came out of the swamp and claimed the land.”
Visitors find The House of Dance and Feathers mostly by word of mouth. The 500-square-foot building itself was designed and constructed by Tulane City Center’s CITYbuild. Inside, Lewis has created a series of “showcases,” each with its own story: African heritage, Mardi Gras, the storytelling tradition, black Indians, Mardi Gras Indians, the storm.
“This is living history,” Lewis says. “It’s not just about where we’ve been, but where we’re going.”
That journey is still unfolding. And unsettling.
“Since Katrina, we’ve had more than 40 non-profits created under the name of saving the Lower 9,” Lewis says. “But they haven’t. August 29 will be nine years, and we still have empty houses and empty lots. All of these people say they’re going to be our Moses, but none of them have brought us to the Promised Land.”
Ultimately, Lewis says, his — and the Lower 9’s — story has but one central narrative.
“It’s about surviving. About bringing back our community. We’re part of New Orleans, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Tomorrow on Voices of the Lower Ninth Ward: Cafe Dauphine. Future Voices series will look at other New Orleans neighborhoods. Email comments and suggestions about this and other areas and people to cover to editor@ nolavie.com.