Mardi Gras Indian Photographs
New Orleans Wine and Food Event
The African-American tradition of "Black Indians" began soon after emancipation. Honoring the Native Americans who helped hide runaway slaves from bounty hunters and slave masters, the newly freed African-Americans began dressing in feathered suits. By the early 20th Century, the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras Indians was established.
Gradually, the tradition fused with West African and Afro-Caribbean traditions of masking, colorful beadwork, and call-and–answer chants. Modern Mardi Gras Indian tribes are part carnival krewe, part “gang”, and part cultural guardians. They bear iconic names like Golden Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Guardian of the Flame, Yellow Pocahontas, and Wild Magnolias. Each tribe includes a Spy Boy, who locates rival tribes and shares intelligence with his gang; a Flag Boy, who carries the tribe’s flag; a Wild Man, who clears a path through the crowd for the Big Chief; and finally the Big Chief, Big Queen, Little Queen and First, Second, and Third Chiefs with their Queens and children.
On Mardi Gras day, the whole entourage, followed by a “second line” of supporters and revelers, sets off down neighborhood streets. When friendly tribes meet, they ”battle” by chanting and showing off their costumes; confrontations generally end with a hug a handshake, or “Looking good, baby, looking good!”. When hostile tribes meet, Spy Boys may trade witty insults, and each member in turn steps forward to confront his counterpart. Finally the rival Big Chiefs approach each other, turning to show off their costumes and demanding homage. After ceremonial whoops, songs and war dances, they each begrudgingly acknowledge the artistry and craftsmanship of the other. In the old days, this might have ended in guns and knives.
The elaborate costume of the Big Chief, sewn over the course of a year with the help of his family and friends, can weigh up to 170 pounds and cost upwards of $57,000. It is assembled from satin, velvet, beads, rhinestones, sequins, jewels, ostrich plumes and bird feathers. These cover the chest piece, apron, headdress, and mask.Canvas patches bearing sketches that tell tribal stories are added. No costume is ever reused the following year.
The ritual meaning behind the Mardi Gras Indians is a closely guarded secret, passed on from adult to child. To be an Indian is a very special calling. The prestige of the tribe and the power and beauty of the community rides on how the tradition is performed in the streets.