Cultural Appropriation and the Mardi Gras Indians

This is the third installment of a four part series covering the Mardi Gras Indians. If you haven’t read the second part yet, head here.

If you’re unacquainted with the Mardi Gras Indians, let’s move through their many layers, beginning with exactly who they are today and how they came to be such an integral part of Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans. A brief disclaimer: it’s worth noting that the information of the tribes is heavily predicated on oral histories, but the following includes some of the more accurate accounts available, from official websites, expertly authored books, and personal accounts from those with a vested academic interest in the Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans. 

There are two umbrella groups which loosely coordinate all of the Mardi Gras Indians: the Uptown Indians and the Downtown Indians. Across these two sets are roughly thirty-eight tribes (not to be confused with a krewe) composed entirely of black carnival celebrators suited from head to toe in elaborate, colorful, and meticulously crafted suits that, according to the unacquainted, are undoubtedly and totally Native American, complete with flowering war bonnets and carefully sculpted expressions of art. It is difficult to do justice to the abstract yet coordinated, elegant yet imposing nature of the suits the tribes adorn.

The craftsmanship of the suits and following tradition, particularly in the form of dances and chants, are the primary objectives of those who participate, and this is abundantly evident in how they interact with tribes that occupy the same parade routes. In the streets, the tribes follow relatively strict processes during encounters with other tribes. Part of that process is as follows, according to the official Mardi Gras website:

“The Big Chiefs of two different tribes start with a song/chant, ceremonial dance, and threatening challenge to ‘Humba’. The Big Chief’s demand that the other Chief bows and pays respect. The retort is a whoop and equally impressive song and war dance with the reply, ‘Me no Humba, YOU Humba!’”

It’s certainly a sight to behold. But another hallmark of the Mardi Gras Indians is their infamously secretive coordination for parade dates, times, and routes, which are never published in advance. That being said, the tribes often gather in particular locations each year during carnival season, so it’s not impossibly difficult to predict where any number of the tribes might congregate. In the more traditional sense, it has been said, sometimes with specific reference to the Mardi Gras Indians, that those who wear masks and paint to hide their face are of questionable character. This second, more blatantly antagonistic example of their secrecy actually seems to logically follow a theorized origin of the tribes, as even their origins are shrouded in murky waters.

Of course, New Orleans has always been and always will be a kind of cultural test tube for all walks of life, and the sheer volume of cultural diffusion is not only evident but earned among all groups of people: African, Caribbean, French, American, Creole, Cajun, and all combinations of said backgrounds. There are two theories for the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians. The first, less widely accepted theory focuses on antebellum New Orleans. When the Civil War ended, waves of freed slaves joined the now-revered Buffalo Soldiers, who, as part of their directed service, aided in the mass relocation of the Plains Indians on the Western Frontier. Once these ex-soldiers returned to New Orleans, where African-American culture was already experiencing steady growth, some number joined the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, which also featured Native American performers. It is said that these performances inspired the Mardi Gras Indians traditions, specifically after a man called Chief Becate, reportedly of African-American, French, and Choctaw heritage,  “masked as an Indian at a Mardi Gras in the 1880s.”

Another more commonly accepted idea is that the traditions hold their roots in the good-natured relationships that escaped slaves formed with Native Americans in the region in the late 1700s. Included in these relationships is the previously described events that may have also played a part in the formation of the Mardi Gras Indians. On another note, oral history also dictates the following, according to former president of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians Council, Larry Bannock:

In the old day, the Indians were violent. Indians would meet on Mardi Gras; it was a day to settle scores.

This may explain the symbolic secrecy of some of their contemporary operations, such as their tradition of unpublished routes and dates. It also partially explains the execution of their interactions with neighboring tribes, and the people known as “spyboys,” who run ahead of the procession and keep an eye out for danger. Thankfully, Mardi Gras is no longer a day to settle scores violently between tribes; today, it is a theatrical display of art and tradition.

In any case, it’s up for debate as to which events had the greatest influence on the Mardi Gras Indians, but it is entirely likely some combination of all of these had an effect on today’s practices.

In his book From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, author Jeroen Dewulf offers insight into not only the contemporary practices of the tribes, but into the details of their extensive history. All of his findings are wrapped neatly into one of the most comprehensive and groundbreaking studies on the origin of the Mardi Gras Indians.

Dewulf offers a trans-Atlantic context for their rituals, which he asserts were founded on practices from the Kingdom of Kongo, and enslaved Kongolese brought with them to the Americas their traditions of rhythm, dance, and feathered headwear. This means that what most of today’s Americans see when they observe the Mardi Gras Indians (i.e., 100% Native American clothing/iconography) may not be quite what they expected. The Kongolese brought their practices to New Orleans and exercised influence on the aptly named Congo Square (more information on Congo Square is available here), which lies inside Louis Armstrong park, along N. Rampart Street. The location of Congo Square relative to these other historically-significant New Orleans locations may play a part in explaining the diffusion of cultures (or lack thereof), according to Dr. Jeffery Darensbourg, a tribal council member of the Atakapa-Ishak nation and academic librarian with a PhD in cognitive science.

Rampart Street derives its name from the wall, or rampart, that was built along the lakeside edge of the early French colonial city, to protect the town from external forces and keep the French from wandering outside the boundaries. According to Darensbourg, the Native Americans in the New Orleans/Bienville area (Bulbancha) have more to do with the influence of music, specifically blues, than they do with the Mardi Gras Indians. The long, wailing notes that are a staple of blues music finds roots in the songs and musical traditions of the Native Americans, says Darensbourg. But that’s not to say the Native Americans exercised no direct influence on the MGIs and Congolese; as has already been established, regardless of the degree of influence, the Natives and their culture were the spark that lit the flame, and the source of inspiration at the tribes claim to be paying homage to.

So, the burning question: are the Mardi Gras Indians guilty of cultural appropriation?

The next installment in this series is subtitled, “What Part Do They Play?”

COVER PHOTO: Pinterest

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