Upon my return to campus in January, there were two words I heard floating around on a daily basis: Mardi Gras. As a freshman, I had no idea what to expect; while I was excited to be surrounded by girls dressed in Dolls Kill sets and adorned with body glitter — no, this is not sarcasm — I was also intrigued by the cultural history surrounding the festivities. For those who don’t know, American Mardi Gras originated in 1699 with a few French explorers as a very small celebration in Southern Louisiana. Since then, New Orleans has garnered international recognition for hosting the biggest, longest Mardi Gras in the US.

One group that has been a staple in the New Orleans Mardi Gras community is the Mardi Gras Indians. The organization began when the marginalized black communities in the city were excluded from the typical Mardi Gras Krewes. These tribes are named after imaginary Indians, paying respect to the Native Americans who previously welcomed escaped slaves into their communities. At its inception, the tradition started as a way for tribes to enact violence on Mardi Gras as retaliation against other groups who had wronged them during the year. This led to much lower attendance for their parade, as parents were too afraid to take their children into a potentially dangerous area.

Nowadays, the Mardi Gras Indians are a strictly nonviolent group that celebrates New Orleans culture and heritage. Their costumes, intricately woven and beaded with thousands of dollars worth of material, are not worth damaging over a disagreement. The Indians create extremely elaborate costumes over the course of the year to show tribe pride and to pay respect to those who came before them. Currently, there are more than 40 tribes in New Orleans. During their parades, they’ll all be chanting call and response songs and competing for the honor of the most attractive tribe.

Tulane students should work to understand the rich history of a city that takes us in as its own. New Orleans natives are eager to share their own Mardi Gras experiences with newcomers. I find the Mardi Gras Indians so fascinating because they turned something violent into a unique art form, making their mark in a city that has often not been kind to people of color. I would strongly recommend adding some more traditional aspects to your Mardi experience, because these four years are going to go by faster than any of us realize. Look up the parade routes, make a game plan, and most importantly, keep an open mind. You might not love learning about history in the classroom, but seeing and breathing in that history for yourself is a whole different ball game.

Cover Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images