Mardi Gras Indians
Tracing their roots back to a time when American Indians helped shield runaway slaves, the Mardi Gras Indians are among the most colorful and mysterious of New Orleans' cultural phenomena. Finding it difficult to participate in Mardi Gras “krewes,” early African Americans developed their own way of celebrating by organizing Mardi Gras Indian tribes as krewes. Today, Mardi Gras Indians shine at every opportunity by showcasing their spectacular hand-made costume, lovely song and contagious spirit. Watch them parade and perform at several events including Jazz Fest, “Super Sunday” the Sunday after St. Joseph’s Day or come during Mardi Gras season when their celebratory spirits shine most – you can’t leave New Orleans without having joined in this truly unique tradition!
Where to Spot Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras Day, of course, is the main day to find Indians as they bloom with the season’s celebrations, but other times they can be hard to track down. “Super Sunday,” the Sunday after St. Joseph’s Day, (March 19) is also a day that several Mardi Gras Indian tribes parade. Other good places to catch tribe gatherings include the banks of the Bayou St. John at Orleans Avenue in Mid-City, Taylor Park uptown on “Super Sunday,” the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street uptown; the intersection of Orleans and North Claiborne Avenues, near Armstrong Park; at Hunter's Field at the corner of North Claiborne and St. Bernard Avenues, or at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, where the history and costumes are on display at 1116 St. Claude Street, in the heart of the historic Tremé neighborhood. It is also recommended to ask a knowledgeable local or check the local newspaper as impromptu celebrations are very common.
Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians
The origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are murky, but Chief Becate of the Creole Wild West tribe is considered a progenitor for masking as an Indian during a Mardi Gras in the 1880s, and others then copying him. Scholars also credit the Native Americans who came to perform in New Orleans with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in 1884 for giving locals inspiration. Others believe that a connection between blacks and Native Americans was forged when New Orleans escaped slaves found asylum with Louisiana tribes. Indeed, Chief Becate is thought to have been part Native American.
Mardi Gras Indian Costumes
No one in the city dons more elaborate attire or takes costuming more seriously than Mardi Gras Indians do. Their fantastic costumes are unforgettable hand-sewn creations of intricate beadwork and dramatic images which rank among the nation's best folk art. Worn just once, the costumes take an entire year to create, with hundreds of thousands of beads, brightly dyed ostrich plumes, sequins, velvet and rhinestones sewn on by hand – some weighing as much as 150 pounds!
Mardi Gras Indian Music
Music, typically call-and-response chanting with tambourines and other handheld percussion, plays a central role in the Mardi Gras Indian spectacle, but the members of a few tribes—the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas in particular—have released critically acclaimed recordings and many times perform professionally with a full band.
Mardi Gras Indian music has also permeated into New Orleans funk, soul and R&B. The famous New Orleans tune “Iko Iko” with the lyrics, “My flag boy and your flag boy, sitting by the fire,” is rooted in Mardi Gras Indian tradition as is the New Orleans standard “Hey Pocky Way.”
Mardi Gras Indian Tribes
There are more than 50 Indian tribes in the city and each march to the beat of their own drummer, literally. With a formal hierarchy of chiefs, spy boys, flag boys, big chiefs, wild men and other unique monikers, the Indians grace the streets of New Orleans’ neighborhoods in friendly competition over which chief is the “prettiest.” With boastful singing and threatening dances and gestures, on Mardi Gras Day the tribes go out seeking other tribes to do “battle” with. In earlier days, a meeting of tribes often turned violent, and few others would dare to be present. Now, plenty of spectators come out to watch Indian tribes who compete by costume and song one-upmanship. Indians are organized into roughly three dozen tribes with names like the Golden Eagles, the Flaming Arrows, the Yellow Pocahontas, and the Bayou Renegades.
You can find out more about Mardi Gras Indians at www.MardiGrasIndians.com.