Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Christians, and this year it falls on Tuesday, February 9, 2016. Most folks think of the term “Mardi Gras” when they think about the revelry and celebrations that occur annually during the weekend before Fat Tuesday, most notably in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But how many people know the true history of the name Mardi Gras?
Mardi Gras Indians are Black Carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. Collectively, their organizations are called “tribes”. There are about 38 tribes. They range in size from half a dozen to several dozen members. The groups are largely independent, but a pair of umbrella organizations loosely coordinate the Uptown Indians and the Downtown Indians.
In addition to Mardi Gras Day, many of the tribes also parade on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) and the Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph’s Day (“Super Sunday”). Traditionally, these were formerly the only times Mardi Gras Indians were seen in public in full regalia. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began the practice of hiring tribes to appear at the Festival as well. In recent years it has become more common to see Mardi Gras Indians at other festivals and parades in the city.
Notwithstanding the popularity of such activities for tourists and residents alike, the fact remains that the phenomenon of the Mardi Gras Indians reflects both a vital musical history, and an equally vital attempt to express internal social dynamics. The group has been criticized for their portrayal of Native American stereotypes, which have been perceived by certain uninformed critics as racist and offensive towards actual Native American people. However, many Mardi Gras Indians explain that they are descendants of Native Americans, and that there were black-skinned natives prior to the African slave trade.
Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since the mid-19th century, possibly before. The history of the Mardi Gras Indians is shrouded in mystery and folklore. In 1740, New Orleans’ Congo Square was a cultural center for African music and dance. New Orleans was more liberal than many Southern cities, and on Sundays African slaves gathered to sing folk songs, play traditional music, and dance. The lively parties were recounted by a Northern observer as being “indescribable… Never will you see gayer countenances, demonstrations of more forgetfulness of the past and the future, and more entire abandonment to the joyous existence to the present movement.” The idea of letting loose and embracing traditional African music and dance is a backbone of the Mardi Gras Indians practice.
As a major southern trade port, New Orleans became a cultural melting pot. During the late 1740s and 1750s, many African slaves fled to the bayous of Louisiana where they encountered Native Americans. Years later, after the Civil War, hundreds of freed slaves joined the U.S. Ninth Cavalry Regiment, also known as Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers fought, killed, forced and aided the mass removal and relocation of the Plains Indians on the Western Frontier. After returning to New Orleans, many ex-soldiers joined popular Wild West Shows, most notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The show wintered in New Orleans from 1884 to 1885 and was hailed by the Daily Picayune as “the people’s choice”. There was at least one black cowboy on the show, and numerous black cowhands.
On Mardi Gras in 1885, fifty to sixty Plains Indians marched in native dress on the streets of New Orleans. Later that year, the first Mardi Gras Indian gang was formed; the tribe was named “The Creole Wild West” and was most likely composed of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, though the “Indian gangs” might predate their appearance in the parades.
Mardi Gras Indian suits cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and can weigh upwards of one hundred pounds. A suit usually takes between six to nine months to plan and complete. Each Indian designs and creates his own suit; elaborate bead patches depict meaningful and symbolic scenes. Beads, feathers, and sequins are integral parts of a Mardi Gras Indian suit. Uptown New Orleans tribes tend to have more sculptural and abstract African-inspired suits; downtown tribes have more pictorial suits with heavy Native American influences.
The Mardi Gras Indians play various traditional roles. Many blocks ahead of the Indians are plain clothed informants keeping an eye out for any danger. The procession begins with “spyboys,” dressed in light “running suits” that allow them the freedom to move quickly in case of emergency. Next comes the “first flag,” an ornately dressed Indian carrying a token tribe flag. Closest to the “Big Chief” is the “Wildman” who usually carries a symbolic weapon. Finally, there is the “Big Chief.” The “Big Chief” decides where to go and which tribes to meet (or ignore). The entire gang is followed by percussionists and revelers.
During the march, the Indians dance and sing traditional songs particular to their gang. They use hodgepodge languages loosely based on different African dialects. The “Big Chief” decides where the gang will parade; the parade route is different each time. When two tribes come across each other, they either pass by or meet for a symbolic fight. Each tribe lines up and the “Big Chiefs” taunt each other about their suits and their tribes. The drum beats of the two tribes intertwine, and the face off is complete. Both tribes continue on their way.
In the early days of the Indians, Mardi Gras was a day of both reveling and bloodshed. “Masking” and parading was a time to settle grudges. This part of Mardi Gras Indian history is immortalized in James Sugar Boy Crawford’s song, “Jock O Mo” (better known and often covered as “Iko Iko”), based on their taunting chants. However, in the late 1960s, Allison Montana, “Chief of Chiefs,” fought to end violence between the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes. He said, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.” Today, the Mardi Gras Indians are largely unplagued by violence; instead they base their fights over the “prettiness” of their suits.
The HBO series Treme features one tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, the Guardians of the Flame, in one of the major plot lines weaving through the series, featuring preparations, the parades as well as strained relationships with the police department. The song “Iko Iko” mentions two Mardi Gras Indian tribes.