Mardi Gras Indians

INTRODUCTION

The Mardi Gras Indians are the most vibrant, visible and conversely mysterious expressions of black New Orleans culture. To distill them into an extremely simplistic sentence: Mardi Gras Indians are black New Orleanians who dress up (or in local lingo, ‘mask’) as stylized Native Americans. They take to the streets in fantastic costumes made of beads, feathers and sequins that cost thousands of dollars, weigh hundreds of pound and require hundreds of days of painstaking labor; no element of costume creation is automated. On Mardi Gras day, Super Sunday, St Joseph’s Day and a select few other special occasions, the ‘chiefs’ and their tribes parade through the city, chanting, shouting and challenging each other to determine who is “the prettiest.”

The bigger definition of the Mardi Gras Indians requires a bit more work. First: why are African Americans trying to emulate Native Americans? The anecdotal history goes like this: runaway slaves often found shelter among Native American tribes, and male slaves often found love among Native American wives. Most Big Chiefs well tell you that masking as Mardi Gras Indians is a tribute to this heritage.

image description

While the above is true, it is also a fact that black soldiers were used as soldiers in the local Indian Wars, and conversely, Native Americans were employed as trackers who hunted down escaped slaves. Written records suggest local blacks began masking as Native Americans in the 1880s – Chief Becate Batiste founded the Creole Wild West, the first Mardi Gras Indian tribe, in 1880. In 1885, Plains Indians marched in traditional dress in Mardi Gras, only one year after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show wintered in New Orleans; some historians assume the first Mardi Gras Indians emulated the Plains tribes people. Even today, Mardi Gras Indian costumes reference Plains Indians over Louisiana’s Houma, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Natchez peoples. Whatever the truth, it is lost to history. Most locals defer to the Backstreet Cultural Museum version of events wherein the costumes are a tribute to an old empathy between African Americans and Native Americans.

Back in the day, Mardi Gras Indian tribes often engaged in real street warfare. Costuming consisted of some feathers and war paint. Confrontations between tribes were often violent; Mardi Gras was seen as a day to settle scores. This trend changed in the late 20th-century, a shift largely attributed to Allison ‘Tootie’ Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe (his Great Uncle was the afore-mentioned Becate Batiste). Tootie is credited with crafting the first elaborate father and bead extravaganza suits; he used these outfits and their ‘prettiness’ to proclaim his superiority over rival chiefs, turning a contest of violence into a content of fashion.

There are over 50 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that self-identify as Uptown or Downtown Indians, and each has a strict hierarchy. The basic organizational flow goes:

  • Spy Boy Runs ahead of the tribe looking for a clear marching route.
  • Flag Boy Carries the tribe’s ‘flag’, usually an ornately designed banner or standard.
  • Wildman Acts like a possessed, well, Wildman. Costume often has horns and other frightening elements.
  • Big Chief The Big Chief is the centerpiece and coordinator of any one Mardi Gras Indian tribe.

Usually the entire procession is followed by a band, which plays to compliment the tambourine-and-percussion laced call and response chants led by the Big Chief. The entire affair of beads, feathers, chanting (“Ooo-nan-ney, Get Out the Way”) is more West African than Native American, which isn’t that surprising given the strong links between the New Orleans backstreet and the African continent.

You can see Mardi Gras Indians mask on Mardi Gras, of course, where they can often be found in and around the Backstreet Cultural Museum. They also emerge at Jazzfest and on Super Sunday, the closest Sunday to St Joseph’s Day, Mar 19 (usually the third Sunday in March). The Super Sunday convocation of tribes kicks off at A.L. Davis Park, at Washington & LaSalle streets; the tribes also gather in this area on the night of St Joseph’s Day. It’s an eerily powerful experience, and by far the one event you can experience in New Orleans that reminds you this city is geographically in the USA, and culturally a thousand miles removed from it.

Our Local Publisher Partners

The Arts Council of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans is a private, non-profit organization designated as the City’s official arts agency. The Arts Council serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers available municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans. The Arts Council works in partnership with the City of New Orleans, community groups, local, state, and national governmental agencies, and other nonprofit arts organizations to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans community through a diversity of initiatives and services.

WWNO

WWNO, the NPR member station for New Orleans, serves southeast Louisiana and parts of southwest Mississippi by broadcasting balanced news, thought provoking analysis, classical music, jazz and other musical styles, intelligent entertainment, and unique local content. We broadcast on 89.9 FM, and KTLN 90.5 FM in the Houma-Thibodaux area as a public service of the University of New Orleans. All of WWNO’s programs, including its growing local news coverage, are available online at WWNO.org.

WWOZ

WWOZ 90.7 FM is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station offering listener-supported, volunteer-programmed community radio. WWOZ covers many events live in and around the city and across the United States, and broadcasts live from the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival annually. WWOZ’s mission is to be the worldwide voice, archive, and flag-bearer of New Orleans culture and musical heritage.

PRC

Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has been preserving, restoring, and revitalizing New Orleans’ historic architecture and neighborhoods since 1974. Throughout its history, PRC has acted as an advocacy agent on a local, regional, and national scale, spreading the word about the city’s rich architectural heritage and the economic importance of preserving this heritage. PRC also takes a hands-on approach to preservation, with a history of successfully restoring over 1,400 properties. The center strengthens and revitalizes New Orleans in a way that is forward-looking and sustainable, yet sensitive to the city’s past and its heritage.

NOMA

As a nexus for the arts in New Orleans, NOMA is committed to preserving, interpreting, and enriching its collections and renowned sculpture garden; offering innovative experiences for learning and interpretation; and uniting, inspiring, and engaging diverse communities and cultures.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing educational opportunities to all Louisianans.

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

X

Thanks.

was added to your favorites.

VIEW YOUR PROFILE

 


Share On Twitter Share On Facebook