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Guardians of the Flame (Group) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Guardians of the Flame (Group)


Historical Note:

The Guardians of the Flame was founded in 1988 by Donald Harrison Sr. The group made its first public appearance on February 7, 1989. The main mission of the group is to promote afrocentrism and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The music they perform fuses African percussion and modern jazz. The lyrics of the songs are steeped with culture and many have double meanings. The Indians' costumes are covered in intricate beading that draws inspiration from African themes from the Yoruba, Zulu, Mali, and ancient Benin traditions. Donald Harrison was the Guardian's first big chief. He masked as a Mardi Gras Indian along with his son, Donald Harrison Jr, and his daughter, Cherice Harrison Nelson. Guardians of the Flame is made up of the extended family and family friends of Donald Harrison Sr.

Donald Harrison Sr. began participating in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in 1949.  He was raised in the uptown part of New Orleans. In 1951, Harrison was the third chief of the Creole Wild West Indians and assumed the position of the Indians' second chief in 1958 after his service in the United States Army. He was the Big Chief for the Creole Wild West Indians in 1961. Harrison also served as a chief scout for the White Eagle Indians and retired in 1969 after he was named Big Chief. He formed the Guardians of the Flame in 1988 for his family to continue the tradition of masking as Mardi Gras Indians. Donald Harrison Sr. died in 1998.

After his father's death, Donald Harrison Jr. and his sister, Cherice, took charge of the group. Donald Harrison is a prominent saxophonist in New Orleans, who has traveled as far as Holland with his music. He started playing music in the fourth grade, soaking up the jazz that surrounded him in childhood. He continued to study music at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with Ellis Marsalis, at the Southern University of New Orleans with "Kidd" Jordan, and at Southern University in Baton Rouge with Alvin Batiste. Berklee College of Music opened up incredible opportunities for the young musician. In 1982, he joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. A year later he co-led a group with trumpeter Terrence Blanchard; their group recorded five albums. He replaced his father as Big Chief and is joined by Cherice Harrison Nelson as Big Queen.

In 2011, Brian Harrison Nelson became Big Chief. The Guardians of the Flame continue to mask in a tradition that rivals a spiritual utopia. Members of the Guardians say that they cherish the connection they have to Native Americans through this tradition and feel that this is how they combat the oppression they face. As a performing group, the Guardians of the Flame have attended the biggest pow-wow in North American, the Gathering of Nations. In 1993, the group was the pow-wow's first Mardi Gras Indian guests. The Guardians have also traveled to Miami, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1993, fourteen performers, ages 5 to 60, graced the stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Sources: Guardians of the Flame collection
Note Author: Sara Green





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