Mardi Gras Indians will take your breath away with their strong celebration of life and culture. Yet beneath the famous, most vibrant celebration of life that is Mardi Gras, lie concealed secrets of centuries of discrimination.
Mardi Gras Indians are groups of people, predominantly African-American, who primarily come from the inner city of New Orleans. Their tribes are the oldest cultural organizations, having entered New Orleans during the days of slavery. They are known for their preservation of African “dress art” and vibrant demonstrations. Each year the tribes peak on Mardi Gras day, as various groups circulate through neighborhoods, sharing their culture in high-spirits. Although oppressed and often overlooked, Mardi Gras Indians are proud of their culture and continue to carry on their traditions.
Historically, African Americans have developed their own ways of celebrating Mardi Gras within their own communities due to their cruel exclusion from the mainstream celebration. These groups, or tribes, are titled Mardi Gras Indians due to the history of African Americans and Native Indians relations, dating back to the early 1800s. Native Americans in Louisiana would often assist runaway slaves escape north and give them shelter on their journeys. South Louisiana has a long history of both alliances and intimate relationships between African Americans and Native Indians, as many Mardi Gras Indians today have families and ancestry of Native Indians. The first tribe, the Creole Wild West, had emerged in the 1855 Mardi Gras, thereby beginning the legacy of the Mardi Gras Indians. The tribes are typically composed of men and became arranged in a hierarchical order, with the Big Chief being the most elite position. The Mardi Gras Indians do not just celebrate annually, they have adapted it as their community lifestyle.
In the article, The Complicated History of Race and Mardi Gras, African American studies specialist Trimiko Melancon, part of the African American Intellectual History Society, states that post Civil War Mardi Gras pushed empowerment towards white dominance and reaffirmation of black suppression. African Americans were not accepted into krewes until 1973, when Zulu became the first krewe to integrate.
There are various groups of Mardi Gras Indians who are made up of different communities; these groups are usually referred to as gangs. “Mardi Gras Indian traditions are community-based, meaning they differ amongst gangs,” states Cherice Harrison-Nelson, a third generation Mardi Gras Indian who is co-founder and curator of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, “For example, different gangs will demonstrate their own personal funeral rites and grieving rituals.” Something that all gangs have in common, though, is the way they express themselves, through the creation of ceremonial and narrative attire for Mardi Gras parades. Individuals craft their own attire, known as “suits”, from scratch each year and follow community ritual processions, which is a way for them to come together. Suits are individualistic and a form of identity, telling their own personal stories.
According to Dr. Jackson, a renowned cultural anthropologist who has spent 30 years with the tribes, Mardi Gras Indians have often used their sewing and suit creation as an artistic outlet to symbolically express their discontent towards white power in the South. They spend months individually hand-crafting each suit with beads, feathers and rhinestones, some maskers even spending the entire year creating their new suit for the following year. When you think about how much money and how many hours goes into each suit, some weighing up to 150 pounds, it’s incredible to look at them up close and see their gorgeous and intricate details. Dr. Jackson expressed that their suits are “what makes them truly street warriors, as they fought with the aesthetics of their designed suits.”
Harrison-Nelson also mentioned how Mardi Gras Indians engage in personal narrative dances and songs to express their culture. “Mardi Gras Indians sing in a call and response format and work to support their gang members in every way they can,” she says. Hence, Mardi Gras Indians are always there for one another and work to present their culture to the outside world through various means. Harrison-Nelson refers to partaking in these traditions as a “spiritual calling.”
The fight for equality has been an excruciating and constant struggle for the Mardi Gras Indians. The tribe’s traditions have been around for centuries and are the most jaw-dropping and extravagant parades, but have gone largely unnoticed every Mardi Gras season. As the Mardi Gras Indians have formulated due to Mardi Gras’ complicated past with racism and oppression, it is sadly unsurprising that they still must face these obstacles. During the Civil rights movement, leaders of the tribes were often front runners at marches and sit-ins. People of the tribes fought and have always prioritized fighting back for social justice.
One stark issue of oppression that has persevered over time for the Mardi Gras Indians has been issues with the police. Dr. Jackson spoke of the horror she’s witnessed of the police system’s interference with the Indians through the years. When the tribes make way on their parade in the streets, police have consistently pushed the Indians off the streets during their parades. Jackson reiterates the brutal attacks of police by describing how they have “barged in and break apart the parades as if it was a riot.” The police will then proceed to swinging, pushing, and hitting the paraders. Dr. Jackson shares that “One of the most cruel acts is when the police curse out the Indians in front of young children.” To put it simply, the police do not have a history of respecting the Mardi Gras Indians, nor their traditions.
While seeing the Indians fight back for justice against the police system for decades, the most significant moment Jackson has witnessed was the City Council Hearing of 2005. The breakup of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe’s parade by the police on St. Joseph’s Night had resulted in such outrage, as viral videos spread of police pushing paraders to the ground. At the hearing the next day, elder Chief Tootie Montana The Chief of Chiefs of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe made a momentous speech about police oppression against the Indians and that he has seen and dealt with enough of it. He burned with anger and used all his energy due to the passion he had for his message. When he finished his speech, Jackson recalls, he dropped to the floor and the paramedics were called as panic spread among the crowd. The Mardi Gras Indians all broke out in song, praying for their Chief. He had given his life to the fury he felt for the racial injustice of his people.
Mardi Gras Indians only make a few public appearances per year which is a part of what makes them so special. Their first appearance is Mardi Gras Day, the second and third are Super Sunday, and on St. Joseph’s night. However, if you’re lucky you may also spot a tribe or two performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this upcoming Spring.
Featured image via Magdalena Saliba.