New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians
But beyond their sensational suits laced with gorgeous gems, fabulous feathers and impressively intricate beadwork lies a rich cultural history dating back nearly 300 years.
And, until fairly recently, this fascinating story was unknown to virtually everyone who lived outside NOLA’s tightly-knit “Black Masking Indian” community.
The history of the Mardi Gras Indians‘ culture can be traced back to the 1700s. When Jean-Baptise Le Moyne founded the port colony and river fort of Nouvelle Orle’ans in 1718, the French were using captive Native Americans as slaves. But the Indians prized their freedom, and often escaped into the swampy bayous of Louisiana, where their captors were too afraid to follow.
By 1719 ships filled with enslaved Africans had arrived in the French Quarter, where many were sold and trained to work on local plantations. In 1725, the first of many slaves escaped into the bayou with help from the Choctaw, Seminoles and Chickasaws. They were taught to live off the land in what were known as “Maroon Camps,” and many of them banded together with the Indians for the Natchez Revolt of 1729.
Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, traditional African culture was being kept alive in Congo Square (which now separates the French Quarter from Tremé, America’s oldest community of free black people). Every Sunday the enslaved Africans were allowed to gather in the public square, sing traditional folk songs, play drums and dance in lively celebration one observer described as “entire abandonment to the joyous existence to the present movement.”
Historical records suggest that blacks were dressing as Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras as early as 1746, and intermingling of the two races led to a boom in mulatto babies. Some of these Creoles even used their costumes to sneak into the secret society Mardi Gras balls, prompting the Spanish government that ran New Orleans at the time to ban them from wearing masks.
So instead they stuck to the black neighborhoods around Congo Square. That is, until the 1811 slave revolt led to a complete ban on all gatherings by people of color, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free men.
In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, hundreds of former slaves joined the U.S. Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments, which were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments. Collectively known as the Buffalo Soldiers, these men fought the Plains Indians and helped America’s westward expansion.
After finishing their tours of duty, some of the Buffalo Soldiers joined the “Wild West Shows” that were popular time. The famous one headlined by Buffalo Bill wintered in New Orleans from 1884 to 1885, and featured at least one black cowboy and numerous black cowhands.
Approximately 50 to 60 Plains Indians marched on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 1885, all of them wearing traditional costumes. Some historians suggest that the first Mardi Gras Indian gang– “Creole Wild West”– was formed later that year, but CWW members suggest their origins date back to the early 1800s.
Regardless, we know that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition remained largely underground for decades, dividing geographically into loosely organized gangs (now known as tribes). They would secretly gather to sing and chant in the ancient tribal tradition, working all year long to create colorful suits bedecked with intricate hand beading, false gems and decorative feathers, as well as matching accessories such as staffs, shields and tribal flags.
On Mardi Gras day, when the police were busy protecting the French Quarter, they would take to the streets of their neighborhoods to strut their stuff and honor the Indians who had helped them obtain their freedom. When they met with another rival tribe, some reports suggest that it led to violence, with stabbings and shootings relatively common. Some Mardi Gras Indian historians argue that these reports of violence were greatly exaggerated.
By the mid-20th century, tribal encounters were a friendly form of competition based on dancing, singing and who could make the prettiest suit. These days the Mardi Gras Indians spend thousands of dollars on making their outfits, which they typically wear only twice– once on Mardi Gras, and once on Super Sunday– before destroying them or donating them to local museums such as the Backstreet Cultural Museum and the House of Dance & Feathers.
Super Sunday is typically held on the third Sunday of March, in celebration of the Catholic holiday of St. Joseph’s Day. But because the Mardi Gras Indians put so much time and energy into their elaborate suits, and feathers do not look good when wet, they cancel the event anytime there’s a threat of rain. Luckily for us, last year’s Super Sunday was postponed until March 30, and we were delighted to be able to attend a cultural festival unlike anything we’d ever seen.
As I walked around with my daughter, marveling at the Mardi Gras Indians’ artful craftsmanship, what struck me the most was how much of a family affair Super Sunday was. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters put on their matching outfits side by side.
Nearly every Big Chief– the patriarchal leader of the tribe– was accompanied by his dancing Queen. Older sons occasionally served as Spy Boys, walking ahead of the tribe to clear a path through the thronged masses of people angling for a photo. Costumed kids ranged in age from around 2 years old to older teens, gamely trudging along behind their parents, strutting their stuff, and proudly showing off their costumes for the crowd.
It was a thrilling introduction to the thriving Mardi Gras Indian culture, and easily the most invigorating community celebration we’ve ever attended. It may not be as well-known as Mardi Gras, but Super Sunday is the reason we’ll be making the 10-hour drive back to New Orleans once again this year. Hopefully we’ll come back with even more insight into Mardi Gras Indian history to share. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Alex Love
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