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Mardi Gras Indians

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  • John A Imani
    (JAI: Just back from Mardi Gras and thought that this accounting of an early example of Black/Red unity might shed a different kind of light on early
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 17, 2013
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      (JAI: Just back from Mardi Gras and thought that this accounting of an
      early example of Black/Red unity might shed a different kind of light on
      early cooperation between the races.)

      This is a printer friendly version of the page. Go back to the website
      version �<http://www.economist.com/news/christmas/21568588-exuberant-new-orleans-ritual-commemorates-friendship-escaped-slaves-and-native>
      Mardi Gras Indians Home-grown and spirit-raised An exuberant New Orleans
      ritual commemorates the friendship of escaped slaves and Native
      AmericansDec 22nd 2012 | NEW
      ORLEANS |From the print

      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

      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.�
      In this section
      Reprints <http://www.economist.com/rights>
      Related topics

      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

      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 Trem�
      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

      *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

      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

      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 Trem� 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.

      From the print edition: Christmas


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