Some New Orleans traditions are easily accessible to outsiders, like seafood gumbo or roast beef poboys. Others remain more elusive. Perhaps the most mysterious are the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians. Roughly forty groups (known as “tribes”) of African Americans from neighborhoods across the city unveil elaborate beaded and feathered suits each Mardi Gras day. The process of designing and creating each suit, known as “masking”, represents thousands of dollars spent and hours sewn for each participant. The patterns and procession surrounding the suits’ unveiling provide a window into African American and Native American history in the region, as well as an opportunity for Mardi Gras Indians to reveal their community’s stories (and their own hopes and dreams), through artwork.
No one actually knows exactly when and where it started. We know there were communities of African Americans, Maroon colonies, in the marshes and bayous, and that some of those people also interacted with and likely assimilated into Native American communities. There are references to darker skinned people living like warriors in Iberville’s journal that predate the (official 1718) founding of New Orleans. The first written accounts of definitive Mardi Gras Indians, though, are in the 1880s.
The roots of Mardi Gras Indian tradition are complicated, and theories of origin vary. “No one actually knows exactly when and where it started,” says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, and Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society. “We know there were communities of African Americans, Maroon colonies, in the marshes and bayous, and that some of those people also interacted with and likely assimilated into Native American communities. There are references to darker skinned people living like warriors in Iberville’s journal that predate the (official 1718) founding of New Orleans. The first written accounts of definitive Mardi Gras Indians, though, are in the 1880s.”
Interactions between African Americans and nearby Chitimacha and Houma tribes likely influenced the Mardi Gras Indians. Others theorize that visits from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the mid-1880s also played a role. “You don’t see Louisiana’s Native Americans wearing flowing headdresses, that’s more southwestern. So, it’s not all indigenous to this area. There had to be other influences (ancestral memories from Africa of ceremonial attire of vibrant colors) We also have oral histories from the 1920s where men remember their fathers and other elders masking, so I think this is a tradition that’s almost as old as carnival,” says Harrison-Nelson.
West African traditions, particularly musical traditions, have also made their way into the Mardi Gras Indian ceremony. Tribes proceed through neighborhoods drumming and singing in a call and response fashion, with no established route. Big chiefs, the heads of each tribe, dictate the route, following cues from a spy boy out front, looking for other groups of Mardi Gras Indians in the area.
“The spy boy is on the lookout for other Indians,” says Big Chief Tyrone Casby of the Mohawk Hunters. “And when he sees them, he tells the flag boy, who tells the chief.” In addition to these roles in each tribe, Big Chiefs are surrounded by a court, often including a Big Queen, and preceded by a wild man, who clears the path to allow the two Big Chiefs of each tribe to face off. Members of the court, and the number of people in each tribe, vary.
Meetings between two tribes showcase the Indians’ language, songs, and suits, as Big Chiefs lead other members in performance. In the past, these meetings had a reputation for also being violent. “When I told my mother I wanted to mask, she was like ‘no, indeed’ because of what was attached to the culture at the time,” says Big Chief Casby. “There was a culture of violence. Guys would meet up and you would have confrontation.” Many people credit Big Chiefs like Bo Dollis and Allison “Tootie” Montana for calling for an end to violent altercations, and instead focusing on the pageantry of Mardi Gras Indian culture.
“I think the past culture of violence is exaggerated,” says Harrison- Nelson. “Yes, sometimes there were feats of bravery, and sometimes people got aggressive when they were fortified with alcohol, but there were also people in the French Quarter having fights while drunk, and that was brushed aside as men having fun.”
Harrison-Nelson points to a history of restrictive and repressive policies against African American and Native American New Orleanians as a point of unity and as part of the impetus for the “won’t bow down” attitude adopted by the Indians. “My father (who was a Big Chief), used to say it was a mutual struggle to have freedom in America. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression of musical and cultural practices.”
Big Chief Tootie Montana saw commonality between all Mardi Gras Indians in the work ethic required to complete each suit, and that ethos continues to unite many people across different tribes and neighborhoods. “It’s a passion,” says Ronald Lewis, former spy boy under Chief Montana and founder of the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum that memorializes African American cultural traditions in New Orleans. “Like any other artist, we consider these suits our signature pieces of work.”
Each year, Indians select new colors and envision new designs. Some begin their suits immediately after Carnival; most spend at least 6-9 months sewing daily. “You get the beads on there with a thread and needle. The almighty thread and needle,” says Lewis. “The vision and the spirit takes control of you, and you have to go out and find the colored beads, and commit. I was working for the transit system on the streetcar tracks, and I would come home and eat and shower and sew until 2 or 3 in the morning. Then go back to work at 6am.”
Contemporary Mardi Gras Indians appear on St. Joseph’s Day in March, at Jazz Fest, and in occasional second lines throughout the city. However, it is Mardi Gras day that represents the culmination of a year’s work. “When you walk out that door and you see everyone with their children, and they tell you what a great job you’ve done, you feed off that energy. It’s what brings you into that ritual battle and gets you walking five or six miles,” Lewis says.
Over time, different Mardi Gras masking styles have become associated with Uptown and Downtown neighborhoods. “Some people would argue that now there’s no difference between the two, but usually they do look different. Downtown tribes are known for three dimensional designs, constructed on separate pieces of cardboard and later assembled as a single unit. Uptown tribes tend to focus on narrative bead-work, which is the tradition that I come from, going back five generations” says Harrison-Nelson.
Harrison-Nelson also recalls a childhood in the 1960s when her father spent hours “sewing shiny things,” and now she does the same. She co-founded the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame with Roslyn J. Smith (former principal) at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School to continue preserving Indians’ traditions and culture for future generations. “One of my fondest memories is looking up at my father and thinking how big and pretty he was. I couldn’t take him all in. My neck couldn’t lean back enough. I felt so much pride when he masked. This tradition is ancient, but it is also contemporary, and to stay that way we have to teach our children.”