NEW ORLEANS – In two weeks, HexFest 2015 is scheduled to kick off its magical event in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. The event begins Friday, Aug. 21 with a Riverboat ride and ritual hosted by Priestess and Voodoo Queen Bloody Mary. Up until Friday, the opening ritual was to be held on the Steamboat Natchez. However, after a phone call early morning, HexFest organizers found themselves scrambling for a new location. The Natchez had canceled their contract due to what was initially described as “religious reasons.”
In a conversation with The Wild Hunt, Ty Siddiqui, manager of HexFest, explained that she was awoken Friday morning by a call from Natchez sales director Deirdra Edwards and was told, “We are not going to be able to do your event on the Natchez.” According to Siddiqui, it was further explained that the owner had just “come back into town from being away” and hadn’t known about HexFest. After looking at the website, he said that he didn’t want anything to do with Witchcraft and Voodoo. “He didn’t want it on his boat.”
Siddiqui immediately called Hexfest co-owner Christian Day, who is on his Honeymoon in the U.K., and broke the news. Together they contacted Edwards again, and she reiterated the reason. According to Siddiqui, she and Day offered modifications, including eliminating the entire ritual and drumming. She said, “We were willing to work with them … [but] there was nothing we could do.”
Day added that “the whole thing is just incredibly disappointing.” He went on to explain that the Natchez knew right from the beginning what HexFest was and what they were planning on doing. On May 9, 2014, Day and co-owner Brian Cain officially announced the event dates on a newly launched Facebook page. By early June, they publicized a list of tentative presenters, a rough schedule, a new website and were selling tickets. Then, June 27, 2014, a day after signing the Natchez contract, organizers announced that the opening ritual would be held on the riverboat.
In a Friday letter sent to the boat’s owner, Day wrote, “We had explained everything that was going to be going on to Deidra on the phone and even referred to components such as drumming and voodoo in emails back and forth, none of which she expressed concern over…”
After the initial phone calls, the Natchez reportedly stopped communicating with Siddiqui. She said that she was informed that Edwards was in a meeting with the controller “and others” and could not talk. In the meantime, Siddiqui was able to secure a new riverboat, The Creole Queen, for the opening ritual event. The new boat’s port is farther form HexFest’s main location at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, but the Creole sales team has reportedly been helpful and accommodating.
Then, late on Friday, Siddiqui got another call from the Natchez. She was informed that the HexFest event was actually canceled due to breach of contract, specifically citing two points:
- It is understood and agreed that the Charterer shall not participate in any ticket sales other than to members of its own organization, unless consent to do so is granted herein.
- Charterer shall not stage any “exotic” dancing, entertainment or singing without Owner’s prior written approval.
Day told The Wild Hunt, “The sales director of the Steamboat Natchez knew from the beginning that we were a ticketed weekend event and she knew that we were having the Dragon Ritual Drummers onboard. … We explained what we were in the beginning and she said the membership didn’t apply to us because we were not a membership organization.” Day added that he has an email trail proving some of these points.
In addition, he noted that the company had accepted a contract for HexFest 2016. That contract is dated July 7, 2015. It was signed and submitted only one month ago. What changed over the past thirty days?What puzzles organizers even more is that Bloody Mary has been a presenter on the boat in the past. Bloody Mary herself said that she was very “perplexed.” She told The Wild Hunt, “I suggested I do [the] river blessing voodoo ritual on that the boat … I have been called on to work for that company directly, sent many of my groups to them for years … and although I knew they were not necessarily believers in mysticism, they do tours and events on subjects of voodoo, paranormal, seance and such. It seemed they were open to the ideas.” Mary added that she would no longer be recommending the Natchez or any of its sister tourist companies, and is drafting a formal letter of complaint.
According to Day and Siddiqui, it was the owner, Gordon Stevens, who canceled the contract because he wanted “nothing to do with” HexFest, Witchcraft or Voodoo. Stevens is president, CEO and co-owner of the New Orleans Steamboat Company and Gray Line New Orleans. He is also part owner of “Café Beignet and Frostop Restaurants, and is President of the real-estate agency M.G. Stevens Corporation” In his bio, he describes himself as being “guided by the strong Catholic traditions he was raised with.” Along with donating to a number of Catholic charities, Stevens serves as president on the Board of the Catholic Foundation of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. As this suggests, he himself may not, in fact, be a “believer in mysticism.”
While New Orleans has always been somewhat of a progressive city in which Catholicism, magic, mysticism and other spiritual practices intertwine, Louisiana is currently considered one of the most conservative states in the country. Siddiqui said, “Ever since this wave of conservative religiousity hit Louisiana, it has opened the door to allow people to discriminate against each other.” She is referring specifically to Governor Jindal (R) who, in May, issued an executive RFRA order after the state Legislature did not approve a similar bill. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed suit against Jindal for overstepping his authority as Governor.
In response to Jindal’s order, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu penned his own executive order that reads:
I am issuing a clarifying call to the nation that New Orleans is an accepting, inviting city that thrives on its diversity and welcomes people from all walks of life with open arms … In New Orleans, we believe religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle. This executive order is an important, symbolic affirmation that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in New Orleans – and it should not be tolerated anywhere in Louisiana.
And, religious discrimination is just what Day, Siddiqui and others now believe is behind the Natchez canceling their event. Presenter Sandra Mariah Wright told The Wild Hunt, “I am shocked. There is no precedent for this.This is New Orleans.” Wright, herself from Salem, Massachusetts, likened the situation to a similar case ten years ago. She was organizing an event in a local Knights of Columbus hall, a location that had hosted Witchcraft gatherings for years. She said, “Even Laurie Cabot had held events there.” Then someone contacted the state’s Knights of Columbus office, who turned around and threatened to pull the local group’s charter if the event was allowed to continue. With two weeks to go, Wright was left scrambling for a new location.
Like Bloody Mary, Wright said that she’ll never use the Gray Line touring company again. She also added that the “timing seems a bit suspect” considering the recent news out of Pensacola. Siddiqui agreed, saying that, while its probably not directly linked, “it’s too coincidental.”
At this point, the Natchez has refunded HexFest its initial deposit of $5768.75. However, Siddiqui said that they are still owed over $5,000 and have incurred a number of new expenses in the ritual’s rescheduling. Siddiqui also added that they are already speaking to lawyers.
Since the news was announced, various presenters and attendees have been weighing in on the situation. Raven Grimassi wrote, “One of the primary problems I see here is the setting of a precedent. If this matter goes unaddressed to the company, then we are allowing a momentum to build that can be a real problem for us all in the long run.” Grimassi, as well as Day and Cain, are calling on attendees and local Pagans to complain to the company and to the city’s tourism board. Siddiqui said that she has been in contact with both the Greater New Orleans Pagan Pride Day Project and the Louisiana Alliance of Wiccans.
The Wild Hunt reached out to The New Orleans Steamboat Company for a statement and further explanation, but has yet to receive a response.
While HexFest coordinators are still in shock and are confused by the Natchez decision, they still have an event to run. HexFest 2015 will continue on as planned with the Friday evening opening ritual on the Creole Queen. Details of all changes are listed on the event page and main website.