The good, the bad and the pretty: The history of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition
In 1885, several dozen Plains Indians who were part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show marched on Mardi Gras while the troupe was wintering in the city. Later that year, the first New Orleans tribe, the Creole Wild West, was formed; it included members of the Wild West Show’s cast. A tradition was born. In addition to imitating the Indians’ finery, the notion of African-Americans dressing as Native Americans was a way of showing respect to tribes that had sheltered runaway slaves and how the cultures had mingled.
There are about 60 tribes today, and the number is growing, according to Big Chief Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame, curator and co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. The Indians, in their bright, painstakingly assembled suits, march on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) and Super Sunday, the Sunday nearest St. Joseph’s Day, and they show up at festivals and at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
- Mardi Gras Indians refer to their elaborately feathered and beaded garb as suits, not costumes.
- With all of the feathers and beaded finery, a suit can weigh as much as 75 pounds. A suit is for one year only.
- One reason tribes’ routes of march can be difficult to follow dates to the Jim Crow era, when black organizations were prohibited by law from using the same route as white Carnival krewes. Consequently, the Indians were forced to improvise, generally by marching through their neighborhoods.
- The Indians’ affinity for St. Joseph’s Day, a major holiday for people of Italian descent, dates to the period when African-Americans and Italian0Americans lived in the same neighborhoods and became friends, Harrison-Nelson said. Italian-American merchants extended credit to African-Americans, she said, and black New Orleanians visited St. Joseph’s altars.
- The intricate beading on Indians’ suits resembles the beadwork of the Yoruba people in Africa, according to Harrison-Nelson, who also said the Indians’ music and dances have West African roots.
- For years, Mardi Gras Indians were violent, battling over turf and exacting revenge. Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe was instrumental in changing the emphasis from competing with fists to competing with brilliantly designed suits.
With their appearances at Mardi Gras, Super Sunday and their second lines through the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Indians have become a distinctive part of New Orleans, emblematic of its cultural richness. The Indian tradition, and the devotion of its leaders to that heritage, received widespread attention through the HBO series “Treme,” which featured Clarke Peters as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, who was determined to return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, finish his suit and hit the street — a symbol of the city’s post-storm resilience. Being a Mardi Gras Indian is “a way we remember who we are and whose we are,” Harrison-Nelson said. “For me, it’s a spiritual calling. You’re called to do it.”