Mardi Gras morning (part VII): The Skull and Bone Gang


Zohar posing with Seventh Ward residents and the Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, Bruce Sunpie Barnes. The I-10 overpass can be seen in the distance. Photograph by Rick Hinterthuer.

Zohar: I was invited to be apart of the Bone Gang. Some people call it the Skull and Bone Gang, sometimes they might even confuse it with what was going on at Yale University…we had nothing to do with that.

There was a man that came from Africa to New Orleans in 1819. He was the one that brought the culture here to New Orleans. We don’t remember his name, but that’s the only history that we have. And when he drew the skull, it had a certain significance in the way it was drawn, and right now today, the Chief of the Bone Gang, he still know the same technique of drawing that particular design. It was one brother that I studied with – we called him Big Al. Big Al was the Chief of the Bone Gang, the Northside Bone Gang, and we had Bone Gangs like in different parts of the city, but we were the Northside Bone Gang, Chief Al Morris. And now today the Chief is – we call him Sunpie Barnes, and he have the same technique of being able to create that Bone/Skull design. And myself – I’m the second Chief of the Bone Gang. And we come out Mardi Gras morning.

We called like the Death Angels. Some people try to call it the Gremlins, stuff like that. We not anything like that. But the Bone Gang role is, we will warn you, we will come before daybreak on Mardi Gras morning.

And we will warn the people that if you go out and do all these things, you gotta come see us. You go out and drink this alcohol and participate in all these ungodly things people do on Mardi Gras, you gotta come see us. So we have songs we sing reminding, if you do certain things, it’s gon be bad for you. One of the songs was…we would come out and we would knock on doors and wake people up, get em to come out. And mostly, it originated in the Tremé area, and we would come out before daybreak:

Northside Bone Gang,

Northside Bone Gang,

If you keep drinking that wine,

you gotta come see us,

If you keep on taking them drugs,

you gotta come see us,

if you keep on doing those bad things out there,

you gotta come see us.

And then the song would come along:

We are the Northside,

we are the Bone Gang,

we come to remind you,

before you die.

You better get yo’,

yo’ life together,

next time you see us,

it’s too late to cry.

Ashes to ashes,

and dust to dust,

you better straighten up,

before you come see us.

You better get yo’,

yo’ life together,

next time you see us,

it’s too late to cry.

Ironically, the Tremé community of New Orleans is the oldest African American neighborhood in the country. Last Mardi Gras morning we was coming down through Tremé, and we noticed it was no more black people. Tremé was…full of white people from different parts of the country. They didn’t really understand what we were doing or why we were there. They would come out holding their robes, drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes, wondering who these people were. Had their dogs peeping out the doors. It used to be our home. But we were forced to leave.

But we still come out to Tremé with the Backstreet Museum, four o’clock in the morning, Mardi Gras morning, we had photographers and interviews and newspapers, people waiting at 3 in the morning for us. People from all over the world. People from Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, just to come film and walk with us. So Bone Gang has been very significant. It’s becoming more and more popular. Now people coming for us to be in commercials, and we’ve done stuff in different movies and things like that. But our responsibility has never changed. We’ve come to warn you that you gotta straighten up your life. You gotta change your life. You know Yahweh says we have to be moral, we have to be righteous, we have to be upright, we have to be honest, we have to be responsible, we have to take care of our children, we have to know not to put bad things in our bodies, we have to protect our temple. So this is the thing we warn people about – not to take advantage of children with all this stuff going on around the world today, with trafficking children. You participate in these kinda things, it’s gon catch up with you, and you gon have to come and see us. The Bone Gang.

Niya: So there’s a Northside…Is there like a South, East, West?

Zohar: I think in the beginning, that’s the way it started out. You might have people in areas Uptown, but we don’t get the chance to see them. But there may be a group. We just basically focus on the Northside Bone Gang.

Niya: Do you always mask on stilts with the Bone Gang?

Zohar: The stilts was something that initiated, I’d say, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s just a tall spirit. It’s still the Bone Man, just a tall one. The stilts became very popular as the Bone Man, and lots of photographs have been taken. He’s basically the overseer. He go out in the front, in front of the gang, and he could see what’s coming, and keep the gang alert. And he was also what you would call the spy boy, and he would lead the direction that the crowd was gonna go. And also stop traffic.

Niya: So they do have different positions in the way that any other Mardi Gras Indian tribe would have.

Zohar: Yes, yes. They have the Chief, they have the second Chief, and you have what they call the spy boy – he would go out and be in front – and everyone would follow the spy boy, and whatever direction he was going.

Niya: And you’re the second Chief but you also double as spy?

Zohar: Yeah, yea. We don’t have a large group, but usually we have initiates that would come in on Mardi Gras, we would dress them out, and usually we would wanna recruit. We have some children that come and mask with us. Just a culture that we wanna keep alive, so we try to recruit the youngsters and the youth, and hopefully once they get the understanding of it, they’ll wanna come out on Mardi Gras morning themselves.

Part 8: Tremé

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.


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