NEW ORLEANS MARDI GRAS INDIANS AND
BY KALAMU YA
SALAAM (edited from the original by R. Johnson)
A The Mardi Gras Indian tribes (or
"gangs") of New Orleans are community-based, socio-cultural
institutions over a century old. Like blues, jazz, and other deeply rooted
examples of African-American culture, "Injuns" (as neighborhood people
affectionately refer to them) date back to the Post-Reconstruction era.
B Exactly when and why the colorfully
costumed, neighborhood-based gangs started is shrouded in uncertainty, but most
accounts point to the late 1800s, a significant period of racist repression and
outright terror. On September 14, 1874, "Ex-Confederates of the newly
formed White League barricaded streets, attacked, and killed many of the
interracial Metropolitan Police (of New Orleans), and seized the state capitol,
which, at the time, was the old St. Louis Hotel." (1) The Leaguers
temporarily installed city officers--within three weeks they were removed.
Although they were unable to dominate militarily after the infamous battle,
this did mark the beginning of the hey day of segregation in a city which had
known slavery under the French and Spanish but which had also always been
racially mixed and had also had a significant element of free Blacks.
C The structures of Jim Crow ensured that the
Indians would be a phenomenon that existed cocooned within predominately Black
and/or mixed Black/immigrant residential neighborhoods. There would be no Mardi
Gras Indian activity up and down Canal Street, St. Charles Avenue or within the
riverfront area of the French Quarter. During the 1880s not only the Mardi Gras
Indians but also many other benevolent societies, particularly the
neighborhood-based Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (SA&PC) were also
founded. This was a period of organizing within the Black community both for
self-defense (both literally in terms of withstanding segregationist terror and
figuratively in terms of associations of mutual aid), as well as organizing for
self-expression in formal as well as informal artistic expression--for example,
here is when we witness the advent of professional bands, orchestras, and
traveling theatrical/musical troupes. Most knowledgeable observers suggest the
late 1880s as the birth of Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans.
New Orleans? On the one hand New Orleans is uniquely Caribbean rather than
North American in its early history and cultural development, and as a result
is the only place in the United States where Mardi Gras is celebrated as a
major holiday similar to other parts of the western hemisphere--Mobile,
Alabama, actually has an older Mardi Gras celebration but it is much less
developed in both size and community participation at all class and ethnic
levels. On the other hand, New Orleans also shares the cultural history of the
United States, and Native peoples are more interwoven into the cultural fabric
of the United States than in other countries in the Americas.
E The high visibility of Native peoples in
the USA may be because the armed resistance of Native Americans, especially in
the "wild west," had a longer, stronger, and more successful history
in the United States than anywhere else in the Americas. Active, armed Native
resistance to colonialism continued through the turn of the twentieth century.
Additionally, there was a higher incidence of African and Native amalgamation
in the United States unlike in the Caribbean where the native populations were
generally physically eliminated altogether and thus did not provide the
opportunity for amalgamation on the order of Seminoles and Blacks in Florida,
or Blacks and Natchez in the Louisiana territory.
F The seminal elements of Mardi Gras Indian
culture are threefold. One is masking. Two is procession. Three is ritual. In
the case of Mardi Gras Indians, the masking element of the culture offers
multiple levels of interpretations. African cultures traditionally use the mask
as a vehicle to connect the here and now to the spirit world; to invite the
gods to possess the body and to transport the body to another plane of
existence. Dancing, singing, and parading on Mardi Gras day (or at Indian
practices), the Mardi Gras Indians often enter the spirit world of possession
akin to catching the spirit in Black church services or being ridden by loa in
a voodoo service.
G Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana (of the
Yellow Pocahontas gang) explains, "If you're for real and you do it all
those years I did it with no excuse, they can't hold you back when you get on
that floor. It's just like a sister in church. You're dancing with a spirit,
with a feeling. If there are five or six chiefs in my practice, I'll out dance
all of them until they short-winded and they have to run outside looking for
air. I'll still be on the dance floor soaking wet. Look like I can't stop. My
duty was to out dance every one of them. I'm just dancing with a spirit. I'm
not just dancing to be dancing."(2)
H The second level of masking is to hide
one's essence within a socially acceptable form. In this case the spirit of
resistance is "masked" as a Mardi Gras activity. In the early years,
Mardi Gras Indians would actually fight each other as well as anyone who got in
their way. The loose translations of some of the chants refer to "refusing
to bow down". The militant assertion is more than simply macho-inspired
behavior, especially when presented in the guise of Indians, the people who
waged armed struggle against colonialism.
I The third level of masking is the goal of
body adornment which is socially acceptable to the dominant cultures within the
context of Carnival. The desire to produce beauty in dress, beauty in song, and
beauty in dance pushes each Indian to and beyond their creative limit. The
chiefs in particular tend to be men who take extreme pride in their personal
J The element of procession is an equally
important part of the aesthetic. The African tradition emphasizes literally
moving the art through the community. Again, the tradition is
"masked" as a Mardi Gras parade which is both acceptable to the
dominant society and within the means of the Black community. Again, Tootie
offers an interesting insight. He maintains that his first ten years of masking
Indian was, "for myself. The rest of the time, those other forty years
were for the people. After you do it for so many years and you get involved and
you get to be the people's person, you have a lot of feeling for the people.
They make you do a lot of things. Right now, when I'm making a suit, I be
saying, 'Boy, wait until the people see this.' That's what I sew for."(3)
K The third element is ritual. The formation
of societies with secret codes, a specific hierarchy, plus regulations and
obligations to be met serve as major focus of socialization by organizing and
teaching young men how to be responsible members of their community. "If
you're serious about it--I hear guys masking for a year or so and then missing.
No excuses if you're serious.”(4)
L The fundamental framework of a Mardi Gras
Indian gang is a functional hierarchy. Montana spells out the positions:
"You've got first chief, which is Big Chief; First Queen; you've got
Second Chief and Second Queen; Third Chief and Third Queen. First, Second, and
Third chiefs are supposed to have a queen with them. That's just tradition. I
found them doing that. Your fourth chief is not called fourth chief, he's the
Trail Chief. From there on it's just Indians, no title. You also have your Spy
Boy, your Flag Boy and your Wild Man. Your Spy Boy is way out front, three
blocks in front the chief. The Flag Boy is one block in front so he can see the
Spy Boy up ahead and he can wave his flag to let the chief know what is going
on. Today, they don't do like they used to. Today you're not going to see any
Spy Boy with a pair of binoculars around his neck and a small crown so he can
run. Today a Spy Boy looks like a chief and somebody carrying a big old stick.
It's been years since I seen a proper flag. Today everybody has a chief stick.
The Wild Man wearing the horns in there to keep the crowd open and to keep it
clear. He's between the Flag Boy and the Chief."(5)
M Between the nearly year-long sewing seasons
and the Indian practices prior to Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras Indian gangs
compose a social organization which encompasses the most creative and most
dedicated aspects of individual endeavor. Thus, to be an Indian is to make a
social commitment and social statement, to dedicate one's resources, energy,
and creativity to masking, procession, and ritual.
N Though not often discussed, these are key
elements in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, elements which account for the stability
of a social formation that has outlasted other traditions that have died out
over the years. Mardi Gras Indians are more than beautiful. Tootie Montana is
more than a Big Chief. The Mardi Gras Indians in general and Tootie Montana in
particular are the pinnacle of artistic achievement in a country where
excellent, community-based art activity is all but defunct.
1. Guide to ARC, LIGHT, A Series of
Multi-Image Shows About Afro-Americans, Other Ethnic Groups, and Race Relations
History. The Amistad Research Center, 37, 1983.
2. Montana, Allison. Unpublished interview.
23 April 1997.
ACTIVITY FOR SALAAM READING
The selection written by Kalamu ya Salaam
has been divided into lettered sections. After reading the selection show your
understanding by indicating which section is summed up by each description
below. Do this by writing the letter of the proper paragraph by the summation.
1. ___The Indian “gangs” serve an important role
by teaching discipline to young men of the community, though a requirement that
they recognize a chain of command, rules, and duties.
2. ___This tradition arose in New Orleans partly
due to the influence of Caribbean culture on the city.
3. ___The tribes are important organizations in
the community and the tradition is over a century old.
4. ___There are different positions in the tribe,
such as Big Chief, Spy Boy and Flag Boy. Each position has an important
function, especially on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Night as the gang moves
through the city.
5. ___The tribes seem to date from the 1880’s,
and arose from the racist oppression that was seen in the city at the end of
Reconstruction when White supremacist groups effectively took control of the
6. ___Because of the segregationist system known
as Jim Crow, the tribes would remain within the black community, and were a
part of the organizing effort of the community to protect itself from racist
attacks and to express itself artistically.
7. ___To a large extent, community based art has
died in the United States, but the Mardi Gras Indians preserve the tradition.
It is the traditions of the Indians that have allowed for this stability.
8. ___There are three parts to the tradition. One
part involves communication with the spirit world and possession.
9. ___ According to one participant, if
you are really taking part you can’t hold yourself back and you will dance
until you are covered in sweat, just like a person possessed by the spirit in
is also important that art be taken through the community, as in traditional
African society. While masking is important to the masker, it is also an
important thing for the community to see and appreciate.
___Masking also has to do with the spirit of
resistance. The tribes symbolically battle each other, though in earlier days
the fighting between tribes of Mardi Gras Indians was sometimes real.
part of the tradition is the beautification of the body. The Big Chiefs in
particular tend to be men who take pride in their personal appearance.
a Mardi Gras Indian means making a yearlong commitment to masking, ritual, and
procession. It is not a choice to party once a year.
___The success of Native Americans in
militarily opposing colonialism made brought them attention in American
culture. Also, since more Natives survived there could be more communication
and cooperation between slaves and Indian tribes.
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