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The southern state of Louisiana was originally a French controlled territory before it was purchased by the United States in 1803. When it officially became the 18th state in 1812, it was already famous for its cultural diversity. Built on a strong Catholic French foundation, its culture became an amalgam of African, Spanish, Acadian, Native American, West Indies, and European influences. This resulted in an interesting blend of foods, languages, and traditions. One Southern Louisianan tradition, that is arguably the most famous, is the Mardi Gras holiday.
Mardi Gras, has its roots in ancient Pagan celebrations which were later adopted as Christian traditions. These celebrations were full of excess and debauchery and were marked before the Christian observance of Lent. While similar carnivals are celebrated in other countries throughout the world, Louisianans who lived in and around New Orleans eventually adopted the French celebration of “Mardi Gras”. While people throughout the world are somewhat familiar with the Mardi Gras, less is known about a similar celebration done by the Mardi Gras Indians.
The origin of the Indians has a few theories. As many African Americans in the South descended from freed slaves, some believe that runaway slaves who ran into the swamps of Louisiana received assistance from Native American tribes in the region. Others believe that black veterans from the Union Army’s 9th Cavalry Regiment, who had taken part in the forced relocation of plains Indians, brought back knowledge of Native American traditions and customs. While a third theory has it that many local African Americans had worked in a famous “wild west” show, which included many of them dressing up as Native Americans. At some point in the late 1800s, African Americans began forming ceremonial “tribes” of Indians, all of which were African American.
Indians of the tribes dress and parade in costumes they sew themselves, a practice known as “masking.” While having modest origins, the Indian costumes of today are very detailed and each Indian creates their own costume, which can sometimes take up to a year to complete. And no Indian ever wears the same costume twice. During their formative years the tribes would meet and confront other tribes, which sometimes led to violent encounters. Nowadays the tribes still meet, but the fighting is verbal and meant to be in the spirit of the tradition. Each member has immense pride in their own tribe, but there is a common respect for the institution of the Mardi Gras Indians itself.
A tradition handed down through generations.
A Spyboy from the "Buffalo Hunters" tribe scouts for enemy tribes.
Each tribe can have up to dozens of members, but there are five main positions found in all tribes. When the tribes begin their march in the streets, they are led by a “spyboy.” This Indian is usually in a lighter costume allowing them to run toward and away from advancing “enemy” tribes. The second position is the “flag boy” who carries the tribe’s banner or colors. Third is the Wildman who carries a ceremonial weapon to protect the fourth, and most important member, the “Big Chief.” The Big Chief has the most ornate costume and is the one who controls the tribe. He decides where the tribe goes and whether they will “fight” or just walk past another tribe. Next to the Big Chief is his Queen. In front and behind these five may be a mix of other general or plain-clothes Indians who help with “scouting” and beating drums as the tribes march. When two tribes encounter each other, it’s the Big Chief who decides if they “fight.” A fight consists of the two tribes mixing, while the Big Chiefs square off and insult each other and their costumes. While the insults can seem pretty mean from the outside, it’s all done in a relatively friendly way. After the fight, the tribes pass each other and continue on their march. It’s important to note that the biggest weapons the tribes have are their costumes. The “prettiest” Big Chief will always be victorious.
Big Chief Bo Dillis of The Wild Magnolias tribe.
Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters tribe.
A video of various Indians parading through New Orleans.
I first learned about the Mardi Gras Indians while watching the HBO show “Treme.” The series was a fictionalized account of the rebuilding of New Orleans after the Katrina flood in 2005. It shows the process from different perspectives, one of which was a Big Chief who lived in the poorest part of the city, the 9th Ward. It showed him returning to a ravaged city where he begins the process of rebuilding. Dealing with despair and the loss of so much, he found comfort in sewing his new costume. Before seeing this, I had no idea this part of the New Orleans culture even existed. The most interesting thing about it was how the Indians put their own spin on Native American tradition. While they have headdresses and feathers, they use vibrant colors and sew intricate art pieces that are celebrations of their history and culture. Instead of whooping calls and rain dances, they use African inspired call and response singing cadence and drum and brass band accompaniments while marching down urban roadways. While these areas of New Orleans where the tribes hail are normally dangerous areas infested with drugs and gang violence, when the Indians go masking, they are a visual representation of their unity and brotherhood. No matter the issues or beefs they have through the rest of the year, all that matters on Mardi Gras Day is whose tribe and Chief are the prettiest.
I’ll conclude with this YouTube clip of the song 1940’s song “My Indian Red” by Danny Barker, which is a celebration of the Indians.
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