Everyone lined up at Washington and Lasalle this year. We got there around noon because not one of us had a coconut radio so there was no telling when they would come out. When usually all it takes is two clicks on google to find out the start time of anything, this was different. These men march on the time of one man, the Big Chief. Lined up with hundreds of others we all exchanged pleasantries and sipped on Bloody Mary’s while waiting for the time when the Mardi Gras Indians would start their march. Every year on St Joesph’s day, or Super Sunday as its called in New Orleans hundreds of men and women suit up in handmade Indian suits and march their way down the street in all the glory that is the Mardi Gras Indians.
Few people outside of New Orleans know anything about the men and women of the feather, those who carry on a tradition that dates back to the arrival of the first slaves in the early 1700s. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the melting pot of America, the Mardi Gras Indians while small in number have impacted our lives in a big way.
A long time ago when the French arrived they took the Native Americans as slaves to provide labor. One thing they didn’t count on was the natives need for freedom. Plagued by constant runaways and a dwindling workforce, many of the French landowners sought slaves from Haiti and the coast of Ghana to fill their ranks. Upon arriving the slaves at some point came across the Indians who would later help them escape into the Bayou where most wouldn’t be hunted for fear of the Native Americans. To the settlers, the Bayou was unfamiliar territory where the would be outmatched against a people who knew the land very well. After arriving the slaves as a show of gratitude would don traditional Native American ceremonial costumes for feasts and holidays. This comes from a custom in Africa where visiting guests of a different tribe would change into the host’s clothing as as sign of respect and thanks. This is were the Mardi Gras Indians were birthed.
Records show that as early as 1722 references to “Black Indians,” that would come out during carnival time in Congo Square. This tradition would grow and grow and both cultures would continue mixing until Gov Bienville declared it a crime to suit up for the Carnival Season. This came out of the uproar over “Creoles” being able to sneak into some of the Uptown parties because as decedents of slaves and Native Americans their skin was quite light. For a long time masking became a tradition that was kept hushed and only in the black neighborhoods as not to attract attention of the white population.
In modern times, the Indians who call themselves “gangs” have evolved a hierarchy and tradition that has come to define Mardi Gras Day for many people. In your typical (if there is such a thing as a typical Mardi Gras Indian) gang, the youngest members would be called the Spy Boy, and their job was to scout ahead for other gangs and police. Following him would be the Flag Boy who would signal the Chief of any problems and when it was time to move. Next came the Wild Man or War Chief who was the muscle of the group, sometimes donning horns to show they meant business. Last in line, in all his regalia, the Big Chief would be last an the most decorated. Sometimes the Big Chief’s wife was allowed to march too and she was called his squall. While each tribe spends all year making their suits with painstaking detail, the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes are more than pretty beads and feathers.
Big Chiefs are usually neighborhood leaders who help look out and take care of their neighbored, a role needed among the African American population as they were subject discrimination and oppression for so long. The tribes are a family and if not by blood, they are bonded by community. Men like the famous Big Chief Monk Boudreaux still walk the neighborhood every day checking on the local kids and helping a hand where needed.
In the past it was also common for the Indians to suit up and settle disputes on Mardi Gras day as most police were tied up with parades, and would be hesitant to respond to calls in a black neighborhood. This tradition has been laid to best, and the only scores that are settled in the present day is who is the prettiest chief.
Mardi Gras Indians also hold a place in American musical history that few even know. Their melding of the traditional African music with that of the Native Americans, and some Caribbean influences too is a foundation for what would later become blues and later rock and roll. The Wild Magnolia’s Handa Wanda, and Wild Tchoupitoulas Self titled album are great records that should be in every music lovers collection. The Wild Tchoupitoulas were also backed by musicians who would later become the Meters, and after that the Neville Brothers.
Here’s A Great Video from the Times Picayune showcasing some of the Indians:
Here’s a track from Galactics From the Corner to the Block featuring Big Chief Monk Boudreaux “Second and Dryades”
Another great act worth mentioning here is the 101 Mardi Gras Indian Runners. This group, led by Chris “BTO” Jones is unique in that the music features members of different tribes playing together. Its something that is very unique to New Orleans, and can without your own knowledge cause severe boogie of the hips and bottom.
All Photos taken by Bob Compton: Check out his work HERE!