Unmasking the Mardi Gras Indians
A Brief History of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians
In stark contrast to some of the darker years in their history, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans have become one of the most accepted, colorful, and recognizable attractions in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities.
Known for masking (wearing elaborate beaded and feathered costumes while marching, singing, and chanting their way through the streets of New Orleans), the Mardi Gras Indians consist of a number of African American “tribal gangs" who compete against one another during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras for the honor of having constructed each year’s most elaborate and “prettiest” Indian chief (Big Chief) costume. Today, the Mardi Gras Indians’ Mardi Gras celebrations and competition are mostly friendly and non-violent, but, given their complex early history and years of segregation from mainstream Mardi Gras, it’s not surprising to learn that their celebrations were not always so benign.
While the HBO series Treme (which features the Mardi Gras Indians as a central focus in many of its storylines), the Mardi Gras Indians have also garnered increased attention and notoriety through the Internet, and through their active campaign to keep the Mardi Gras Indian tradition alive. While the Mardi Gras Indians have typically only been visible around Mardi Gras in New Orleans ( and a few other select dates), in recent years some groups have taken to masking and “performing” at other times of the year as a means of raising awareness of the Mardi Gras Indians overall. These events also help the tribes raise money to fund the construction of their elaborate costumes.
The History of the Mardi Gras Indians
There appears to be some confusion as to exactly when the Mardi Gras Indians (known by some as the Black Indians) first began parading and “masking” during Mardi Gras. What is known is that when African slaves were first imported to Louisiana, it didn’t take long before some of them tried to escape. In an attempt to avoid re-enslavement, many escaped slaves made their way into Louisiana’s harsh wilderness. In the swamps and bayous of Louisiana they were taught the ways of survival by Native American tribes who viewed escaped slaves as potential allies in their struggle against white settlers. As more and more fugitives (and potentially a few freed men of color) allied themselves with native tribes, they learned the ways of the Indians and came to feel a debt of gratitude. Eventually they would find a way to honor the people who had helped them make their way in the world.
As Mardi Gras began to find its place in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, various traditions sprang up. And, as with most organized cultural events of the day, there were events for whites, and events for others. Freed men of color, and other people of color held their own celebrations separate from the white parades. Eventually the escaped slaves made their way into these events. There is evidence to suggest that as early as the mid-18th century, in an effort to show their gratitude to those that had helped them survive, some of these “Black Indians” adopted the costumes and ceremonial dress of their saviors during these festivities.
Early tribal factions among the Mardi Gras Indians are credited to factionalism between African slaves, and some of the Haitian and other Caribbean slaves who had been imported earlier. During early Mardi Gras masking celebrations (and even within the past few decades), many of the masking battles between various Mardi Gras Indian tribes turned violent, resulting in serious injuries as old scores were settled.
Today, Mardi Gras is far more integrated, and the New Orleans (NOLA) community at large has embraced the Mardi Gras Indians to a much greater extent. Coincidentally (or not), much of the violence seems to have gone out of modern masking traditions, resulting in modern Mardi Gras Indian masking battles that are highly ritualized, ornate, and symbolic displays of craftsmanship and reverence for tradition.
Mardi Gras Indians Ranks & Battles
The Big Chief is the top-ranking member of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. This is the leader of the group who designs, sews, and wears his tribe’s most elaborate costume and headdress (called a “crown”). These heavy costumes can weigh well over a hundred pounds. As a result, Big Chiefs, who often serve well into their later years, may remove part of their costume as they march throughout NOLA on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras day), replacing it when their Spy Boy or other scout warns of an approaching tribal chief.
As masking battles begin, and tribes approach one another, first contact between tribes is likely to be between Spy Boys, costumed tribe members who lead their tribe’s procession using vocal calls, dances, and elaborate hand signals to warn their Big Chief of the arrival of an opposing tribe. Because he provides the initial communication about, and interaction with, the other tribe, the Spy Boy is considered to be one of the most important Mardi Gras Indian ranks. There is also a Flag Boy who carries the tribe’s banner. Still other Mardi Gras Indian ranks include the “Trail Chief” and the “Wild Man”.
Once he's received the Spy Boy’s report, the Big Chief communicates his orders to the tribe through a similar series of dances, calls, and hand gestures. Ultimately the chiefs of the two battling tribes meet in a showdown “battle” of vocalizing, taunting, calls, and dancing, that ends when one Big Chief or the other concedes victory to the other Big Chief proclaiming him to be the “prettiest”.
Mari Gras Indian Influence on New Orleans
As visible and vocal members of the New Orleans African American community, and the greater NOLA Mardi Gras experience, the Mardi Gras Indian tribes are viewed as leaders in the community.
Musically, the Mardi Gras Indians, whose masking events are highly rhythmic and dance-oriented, have contributed greatly to the Mardi Gras musical tradition with tunes like the popular Iko Iko, My Indian Red, Yella Pocahontas, and Big Chief all coming out of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. It’s hard to deny that the increased popularity and interest in Mardi Gras Indian music (courtesy of the Internet, and HBO’s Treme) have boosted attendance at Mardi Gras Indian events, and increased awareness of the music inspired by masking traditions.
Mardi Gras Indian Events & Venues
While the Mardi Gras Indians’ biggest event of the year comes on Fat Tuesday at the end of Carnival season, their next biggest event is Super Sunday, held every year on the third Sunday in March. On this day, Mardi Gras Indian tribal gangs once again dress in their beaded and feathered finery and gather around noon in New Orleans’ A.L. Davis Park (Washington Avenue and LaSalle St.) Generally speaking, this will be the public’s last chance to see that year’s Mardi Gras Indian costumes before they are retired and work is begun on costumes for the following year’s masking events.
With so much history, and cultural significance, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians are a colorful and vocal reminder of the road traveled to get to the Mardi Gras of today. They remind all of us who enjoy Mardi Gras that these few days each year are an excuse to have a good time. But, more than that, they are a reminder of what Mardi Gras is, and where it has come from. They remind us that we owe a debt of gratitude to those who helped us along the way.
Ultimately, the Mardi Gras Indians are a living testament to the importance of Mardi Gras in the community.
Sources (and External Links)
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