The corrugated tin roof of the House of Dance and Feathers slopes up like a jaunty cap over the glass-paneled building in Ronald K. Lewis’ backyard. “Everything in this building has a story,” says Lewis, as he pushed open the door to the museum he curates behind his Lower Ninth Ward home. Inside, the walls, ceiling, tables and floor are all lined with relics from the Mardi Gras Indian “tribes” that live in the area. There are intricately-beaded panels from Indian costumes, and huge fans and plumes of feathers dangling from the rafters. Photographs cover almost every available inch of wall space, and piles of books are stacked on the tables. You begin asking questions, and patiently, Lewis takes the time to share the stories inside.
House of Dance and Feathers has been Lewis’ passion since 2000, when is started as a shed where he taught local children about the area’s culture. A retired streetcar conductor, today Lewis is the president of the Big Nine Social and Pleasure Club and the former Council Chief of the Choctaw Hunters. His museum celebrates the history of the Mardi Gras Indians in the Lower Ninth Ward, and since Katrina, has become a small ray of hope within a community that is still struggling to recover. (When I arrived during my visit, the home next door to Lewis’ was empty, and still bore the telltale cross that signified whether a body had been found by rescue crews).
“When Katrina came, I wanted to rebuild and become a beacon within my community,” says Lewis. “It gave me a venue to tell the world what happened to us. Three and a half years later we’re pushing forward. We’re trying to do anything we can do to keep the glue within our community.”
His role as a beacon has led Lewis to become a bit of a media darling. Mixed in with the artifacts are clips from a New Yorker story where he is referenced, and he showed me the page of National Geographic
magazine where he was quoted. He chatted calmly about hanging out with Steve Inskeep of NPR. But its easy to see why he’d attract attention: The odd building that now stands among dilapidated houses was designed by the Tulane City Center and Project Locus, a nonprofit design firm, after the storm. And yes, it’s a place where the culture and traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians of the 9th Ward are kept, but it’s also a hub for important things in general. On the floor were some bottles that a neighbor dug up from a local park.
There are African sculptures brought home from a recent visit. It’s obvious that the museum has moved beyond its original purpose and is now a “place where things are saved.”
The museum is also the subject of a new book put out by The Neighborhood Story Project, a documentary book-making project in New Orleans. The group works to record the oral histories of people in the city, and partnered with Lewis to publish a beautiful book which came out this past March. In it, you can learn not only about the artifacts collected in the museum, but also about the impact that the tribes and social aid and pleasure clubs have had on the community.
But for now, Lewis hopes that the museum serves as a beacon for those searching for a way back to his neighborhood. “I just want to be seeing children riding the streets on bicycles again,” he says.
“That’s my gratification.”
The museum is on Tupelo Street in the Ninth Ward, and you can visit the museum by making an appointment with Lewis by phone +1 504 957 2678, or by email (email@example.com).
Photo: Janelle Nanos