Every year on “Super Sunday,” the Sunday nearest March 19th, which is “St. Joseph’s Day” (and is also very close to Mardi Gras), several hundred African-Americans in New Orleans emerge from neighborhood clubhouses and parade through the streets wearing feathers. These “tribes,” known as “Mardi Gras Indians,” represent the modern manifestation of a secretive centuries-old tradition that blends African-American slave culture with that of the Native Americans.
No one truly knows the specifics of how the Mardi Gras Indian tradition began–and if they know they won’t say–but the general thought is that in the cultural melting pot of New Orleans, African slaves and Native Americans mixed and mingled intimately, perhaps when
Native Americans helped escaped African slaves on the bayou in the mid-1700s, perhaps after African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” returned with an appreciation for Native American culture after they fought Native American tribes in the West as part of the 9th Cavalry Regiment. Whatever the tradition’s origins, for at least a century “tribes” of African-Americans in New Orleans have acted as tight-nit neighborhood social clubs, emerging once a year to parade in the vibrant, feathery costumes–look at Flickr.com’s “Mardi Gras Indian Pool” for photos–to parade in the street, demonstrating both respect for Native
American culture and pride in their own communities. In the early days these parades were known to become violent, with tribes prone to engaging one another in brawls. Today the tribes primarily “fight” by trying to out-do each other through singing and “masking,” which involve the year-long hand-sewing of unfathomably extensive costumes.
Everyone sings and dances at a Mardi Gras Indian parade; Mardi Gras Indian parades take the form of a “second line,” which is a New Orleans tradition that refers to a loose group of musicians who participate in a parade just for the fun of it, following behind the official,
permitted “first line.” Mardi Gras Indian music is rousing and rhythmic, with songs featuring bold lyrics that often brag of one tribe’s domination of the others. [For an example, watch the Meters’/(Neville Brothers) extraordinary performance of “Wild Tchoupitoulas” with their Uncle Jolly on lead vocals.] The most widely known Mardi Gras Indian song is “Iko Iko,” which features lyrics in which one tribe threatens to set the flag of the other on fire. [Watch the Dixie Cups perform “Iko Iko.” (Look at Thomas Morgan’s introduction to Mardi Gras Indians to learn how “Iko Iko” became “Iko Iko.”]
While Mardi Gras Indians have lately become a feature of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, parading around for tens of thousands of tourists, and
have appeared in fictional form as primary characters in the New Orleans-based HBO show, Treme, the tradition is still very personal and private. A Mardi Gras Indian tribe may come out once a year to strut its stuff, but for a tribe to really be a “tribe,” its members must support each other all year long.
More Mardi Gras Indian music:
“Indian Red” (also watch this version from Treme) | “Shallow Water” (and from Treme) | Listen to Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias perform “Handa Wanda” (watch a United Indian practice in 2011, getting ready to take “Handa Wanda” to the street)
— Learn about the fascinating tradition of Mardi Gras Indian Masking: “Masking as a Mardi Gras Indian…it’s dying, because it costs…over $1,000 for rhinestones, $320.00 for velvet, hundreds for beads, hundreds more for the feathers…it costs, yeah. People with families to support find it difficult.”
— Learn the difference between the Spy Boy, the Flag Boy and Big Chief (essentially, the spy boy is the advance man who serves as a lookout, the flag boy carries the flag and the Big Chief is the guy wearing the pretty features.)
More information about Mardi Gras Indians:
Wikipedia provides a basic overview of Mardi Gras Indian history and traditions | Thomas Morgan’s fantastic historical, cultural and musical introduction to Mardi Gras Indians | MardiGrasNewOrleans.com’s introduction to Mardi Gras Indians | For an overview of all things Mardi Gras Indian, visit MardiGrasIndians.com | Watch “The History of the Creole Wild West as Told By Themselves” | Watch Mardi Gras Indians come out on St. Joseph’s night