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Mardi Gras Indians: Home-grown and spirit-raised

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  • Romi Elnagar
    Mardi Gras Indians Home-grown and spirit-raised An exuberant New Orleans ritual commemorates the friendship of escaped slaves and Native Americans Dec 22nd
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 17, 2013
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      Mardi Gras Indians

      Home-grown and spirit-raised

      An exuberant New Orleans ritual commemorates the friendship of escaped slaves and Native Americans

      Dec 22nd 2012 | NEW ORLEANS

      THE beadwork on Donald Harrison’s final Mardi Gras suit depicts a naked Native American woman, her body dark red, holding a baby in each hand. He wore the suit to perform at Jazz Fest, an annual music festival in New Orleans, in 1998; he died six months later. One of the woman’s hands reaches upwards, the other hangs down. Behind her is a stylised pastoral landscape: sky, mountains, prairie and a river. Above her looms a snarling white face in three-quarter view, with red eyes, yellow bared teeth, pointed ears and a villainous moustache. Glittering stones representing tears fall down the woman’s body: she must choose which of her babies to save.
      Harrison called it his “Trail of Tears” suit, referring to the forced removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans from the south-eastern United States after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Other Mardi Gras Indians pride themselves merely on being “pretty”—on having the most attractive, striking, eye-catching suit on Mardi Gras and St Joseph’s days—and that was important to Harrison too; he always looked correct when he “masked”. But he prized social commentary as well. He was a voracious reader, a passionate arguer, a labour leader among his fellow waiters, and he put himself into all his suits. As his daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, says, “Suits tell stories.”

      They also represent countless hours of painstaking labour. Making one, from conception to execution, can take a family a year. That time is spent hunched over sewing tables, fingers pricked and calloused from stitching hundreds, even thousands of beads, some only a few millimetres in diameter, to form a richly detailed portrait. A suit can weigh 100lb (45kg) or more, but it must be supple enough to let the wearer parade in it for hours on end. Even when the time comes to don the costume, says Ms Harrison-Nelson, “You never really finish a suit…you just put on what you got and go.”
      “The network of navigable bayous and cypress swamps veining the area just outside New Orleans was hospitable territory for escaped slaves”
      Her father’s last suit hangs, along with several others, in the wardrobe of the Upper Ninth Ward house that Harrison and his wife Herreast shared from 1965 until his death. On the adjacent plot sit a boxy little building and a stage, open to the street at the front. On a mid-September morning the building seemed to capture and hold the New Orleans heat and humidity, but eventually, says Mrs Harrison, it will be climate-controlled: the better to preserve the family’s suits, and the similar garments she hopes to gather from around New Orleans.
      Ultimately the collection and the stage are to form the core of a museum dedicated to Mardi Gras Indian culture—a culture that has sustained thousands of working-class black men and women in New Orleans for more than a century. It revolves around parades, traditionally on Mardi Gras (in February or March) and on the Sunday closest to St Joseph’s day (in March), in which black New Orleanians don elaborate suits of feathers, beads, sequins and costume jewels to sing, dance and chant. It is an intoxicating, beautiful spectacle: an intricate New Orleans art form.
      But the culture goes beyond public performance. Its roots reach back to Africa and pre-European America. It commemorates the aid given by one oppressed minority to another. At the same time it celebrates the defiance and self-determination of generations of black New Orleanians, excluded by segregation from the Mardi Gras celebrations of their white neighbours, who put on their outfits and marched despite the contempt of white New Orleans and the threat of jail and violence.
      The Wild Man and the Chief
      Unlike conventional Mardi Gras parades, which process through the centre of the city and are officially sanctioned, Mardi Gras Indian parades still tend to take place in predominantly black neighbourhoods. The marchers have long resisted efforts to have their routes sanctioned. Lolis Eric Elie, an expert on the culture of New Orleans, says that even as Mardi Gras Indians have grown more accepted by mainstream culture, “black people are the owners, practitioners and judges” of the spectacle. By and large, Mr Elie says, the spectators remain the “type of people who have been there for the last hundred years. If the white folks want to see the Indians, they have to see the Indians on their own turf.”
      Mardi Gras Indians march in groups (also called tribes or gangs). The groups’ names tend to blend Native American and African influences with New Orleans geography: Creole Wild West, White Eagles, Wild Squatoolas, Wild Tchoupitoulas (Tchoupitoulas is both a street in New Orleans near the Mississippi River and the name of a long-gone Native American tribe from Louisiana), Eighth Ward Hunters, Mandingo Warriors, Congo Nation, Guardians of the Flame, Yellow Pocahontas, Wild Treme and many others. The number of groups and of the people in each fluctuates. Mr Harrison, for instance, masked first with the White Eagles, then with the Creole Wild West before ultimately “resurrecting” the White Eagles, who had been off the streets for years. The groups range in size from half a dozen to several dozen members.
      Within each there are set roles. The Spy Boy marches first, often several blocks ahead of the rest, keeping an eye out for other gangs. When he sees one he alerts his colleagues with shouts and hand signals. Today, when different groups meet—and part of the purpose of parading is to meet other marchers—they dance at each other in a ritualised series of challenges, calls and responses. Fifty years ago the meetings often provoked violence; hence the need for an advance scout to relay warnings.
      After the Spy Boy comes the Flag Boy. He carries the group’s colours and relays the Spy Boy’s information to the Big Chief, who marches at the back, and takes back the Chief’s commands to the Spy. Unlike them, the Wild Man can range where he likes. His role is to clear away crowds as the Chief approaches; he must be loud and demonstrative as he dances. Depending on the size of the group, some roles can be shared (ie, Second Chief, Third Chief, Trail Chief, and so on). The marchers generally attract a following of neighbourhood people in ordinary dress, playing tambourines and chanting.
      The people who “mask Indian” tend to be working-class black New Orleanians. And as the names of the roles suggest, Mardi Gras Indian culture was traditionally an exclusively male preserve—“a warrior culture”, as Ms Harrison-Nelson calls it—though that is slowly changing. Ms Harrison-Nelson masks as the Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame. While many groups start their parades from bars or taverns, last year her gang, which included several other women and a number of children, got permission to leave from St Augustine’s, a starkly beautiful Catholic church in Tremé built by free black people in the early 19th century.
      The dress is broadly, even generically, Native American; the suits are often complemented by huge feathered headdresses. The apparel derives not from the Choctaw, the Tunica, the Natchez or any of the other Native nations living around New Orleans, but from Natives of the Great Plains (noted for their broad headdresses). One theory is that New Orleanians became familiar with this look in the mid-to-late 19th century, thanks to travelling troupes such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. They may also have encountered it when, after the civil war, some freed slaves joined the army and met Plains Indians on the western frontier.
      But the relationship between blacks and Native Americans in Louisiana is older than that, more compassionate and more political. It goes back to slavery.
      Freedom in the bayous
      In the 18th century fugitive slaves often found sanctuary with Native Americans in Louisiana and along the Gulf coast. Clarence Delcour, who as Big Chief Delco leads the Creole Osceola from the Seventh Ward of New Orleans (Osceola was a Seminole warrior who is said to have married the daughter of a fugitive slave), explains: “We want to pay tribute to the Native Americans because in our area, the bayous, when we ran away as slaves, that’s who took us in. We learned their ways, and they learned our ways.”
      The network of navigable bayous and cypress swamps veining the area just outside New Orleans was hospitable territory for escaped slaves. In the mid-18th century Native Americans used this land as a hunting ground. Eventually Maroon communities—as small, independent groups of fugitive black people were called—evolved in these areas, safely tucked away from scrutiny but still within reach of the marketplace of New Orleans and nearby plantations.
      Michael Smith, a photographer and author of a study of Mardi Gras Indians, notes that “African slaves in the Mississippi Delta were predominantly urban peoples coming to New Orleans directly from Senegal. They found their best chance for survival was in being close to an urban entrepot.” Mr Smith says that “some present-day black Indian gangs still claim cultural and spiritual descent from this early Senegalese population”. Intermarriage between escaped slaves, most of whom were men, and Native Americans was not uncommon.
      Not surprisingly, documentary evidence detailing the links between Maroon and Native communities is thin. But Mardi Gras Indians have always believed such links exist. However cartoonish an interpretation of Native culture the outfits and lingo may at first seem—and plenty of Mardi Gras Indians admit to receiving frosty initial receptions from contemporary Native Americans—the animating spirit is one of genuine gratitude and respect.
      Precisely when the first black New Orleanians masked as Indians is unclear. But the tradition can be traced back at least to the late 19th century, through a genealogy of chiefs and families. Chief Delco, for instance, masked under Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas and also studied under Harrison. Harrison masked under Lawrence Fletcher, who led the White Eagles in the 1950s, and his predecessor Robert “Big Chief Robbe” Lee, who was born in 1915. Robbe was introduced to the ritual by Cornelius Tillman junior, known as Brother Tillman. Al Kennedy explains in his biography of Harrison that Robbe and others met at Brother Tillman’s house, where “the old men told stories that reached back into the late 1890s.”
      No bowing down on dirty ground
      Chief Delco describes the tradition as giving thanks in “an African-Indian way”. Masked processions backed with drumming and chanting take place in other parts of the New World’s African diaspora, and they echo similar celebratory rituals in west Africa itself. Some Mardi Gras Indians make their connection to Africa particularly explicit: Big Chief Victor Harris, for instance, dons a full mask laden with cowrie shells (cowries were used as currency and for divination in west Africa), and leads his gang of Mandingo Warriors as “the spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi”, which he believes is a distinctly African spirit.
      Ms Harrison-Nelson’s group, the Guardians of the Flame, uses African motifs on its suits. She calls her group a Maroon society, the word connoting, as she puts it, “freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom to express their African-ness”. Her brother, Donald Harrison junior, is the Big Chief of a group called Congo Nation, a name with echoes not just of Africa, but also of Congo Square in New Orleans: a place that, because of its role in African-American history, many consider sacred ground.
      Today Congo Square sits in the middle of Louis Armstrong Park, on the border between Tremé and the French Quarter: between black New Orleans and tourist New Orleans. Once it was the metaphysical border between Africa and the New World.
      The French and Spanish Catholics who controlled New Orleans until it was ceded to the United States, in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, afforded slaves more liberty than did the Anglo-Protestants in the rest of America. They had Sundays off; they were allowed to sell goods that they made, hunted or trapped; and with the proceeds from those sales they could, even against the wishes of their masters, buy their freedom. People of African descent, slave and free, gathered at Congo Square to sing, dance, drum, sell and trade; it was then an open field, not paved with cobblestones as it is today, and outside the formal city of New Orleans. The intermingling of their African traditions, music and dances with the city’s European and Native American influences formed a distinct New World Creole culture.
      After the Louisiana Purchase treatment of black New Orleanians grew increasingly harsh. During the civil war Louisiana fought with the Confederacy; both before and after the war, blacks there were subject to many of the same restrictions and indignities as their counterparts in other Southern states. But New Orleans has always been more in the South than of it: the city’s French and Spanish influences and its vibrant Creole culture are unique, and Jim Crow laws could not eradicate them.
      Still, the blacks who took to the streets for Mardi Gras in their Indian regalia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did so despite the fear and disapproval of whites. Even today the mood is not merely one of gratitude and celebration, but also of defiance and self-determination. At the centre of the most famous Mardi Gras Indian chant, “Indian Red”, comes the couplet “We won’t bow down/On that dirty ground”; part of the ritual meeting between two groups is the loud refusal of either chief to bow to the other. Mrs Harrison argues that Mardi Gras Indians should be considered “some of the earliest civil-rights demonstrators”, for insisting on their right to process peacefully despite the threat of arrest or police bullying.
      The basis of the police antagonism is not hard to imagine: police in Southern cities tended to look dimly on raucous gatherings of black people. Tootie Montana, as it happens, died in 2005 at a city council meeting, where he was protesting against the long-standing police harassment of Mardi Gras Indians. But the mutual suspicion may now be fading: the St Joseph’s day parade in 2012 was the first in years not to involve dust-ups between police and Indians. It came after extensive negotiations between police and Indian chiefs, something that would have been unthinkable to Mardi Gras Indians of an earlier generation.
      That detente represents progress—as, arguably, do Indian performances at mainstream events such as Jazz Fest, museums displaying used Indian outfits (the custom used to be to burn them after St Joseph’s night), and a growing awareness that Mardi Gras Indians are not renegade and violent gangs to be opposed and suppressed, but a flourishing of the special cultural mixture of New Orleans. Yet as with any underground art form that becomes mainstream, some in New Orleans worry that this one will be sanitised and domesticated as it finds new audiences.
      In the case of Mardi Gras Indians, the risk seems slight. Interest in the masks and suits may spread, but the culture itself cannot really be reproduced elsewhere, for it is entirely in and of New Orleans. Its rituals are buds on a tree, the roots of which cross oceans and burrow down through centuries. And its heart lies not in the public performances, dramatic though they are, but in the traditions passed down in song in neighbourhood bars, in the stories told from one generation to the next, and in the countless hours spent alone in a room conjuring history with an idea, a needle, some thread and thousands of sequins, feathers and beads.

      http://www.economist.com/news/christmas/21568588-exuberant-new-orleans-ritual-commemorates-friendship-escaped-slaves-and-native
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