A Short History of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans
A Short History of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans
Independently researched by Willie W. Clark Jr. 11-16-1999
One tradition in New Orleans clings onto to its ancestral strength of hard work, persistence pride, and the yearly renewal of respectfulness to its origins... that's the pride of a Mardi Gras Indian.
In the midst of all the other venues of Mardi Gras , it is very easy to, often lose sight of the traditions that make up our heritage. Caucasians, African Americans, as well as other cultures, here in New Orleans, as well as across the nation, have, some to our detriment, cast asidemany of the arts we once cherished. Those arts and customs now merely thought as old-fashioned and out-of-date. This we should not do with the ease, which we so readily exhibit. For in most of the traditions, are also some of our history. Some have said that's it's also our heritage. Some of this nation's heritage is best forgotten. But the history we dare not cast aside, lest we are totally doomed to repeat it. And that option, for African Americans, is thoroughly frightening.
The Black Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are a unique sub-culture of a highly diverse and complex group of the local population . The tradition of these masking Indians, dates back to the 1700's. The scholars that claim to know the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (a two hundred year old tradition) sometimes conflict on the precise history. As a result of this lack of a solid path in the knowledge of Indian history, many theories abound, but this much is for certain, the Indians have preserved some of their culture and history in the guise of tradition, and that tradition at the time of Mardi Gras, is now an integral part of New Orleans. In the heart of New Orleans since the 1780's and perhaps earlier, this ancient colorful and artistic culture has been practiced. A culture, that be it known, exhibits all of that tradition, with some of the positive heritage, and is quite a unique history.
In the Beginning
The history of the Mardi Gras Indians, is a long and hard road, starting in late 1600's with the Indian Village of Tchoutchuoma, which stood quietly and peacefully, in or very near the north gate of the colonial place of what has become the original Colony/Fort/Port of New Orleans, commonly known as the french Quarter. The Indians fished in the bayou and made life as livable as possible.
Other tribes did from time to time attack, and would, besides taking food, occasionally, take captives as slaves, or wives.
In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne', declares his camp "Pointe du Mardi Gras", (Mardi Gras Point), as Louisiana's first European settler's entered the Mississippi Delta Gulf Coast Region, and in 1711, a mere two years later, Native Indians were first taken as slaves.
Taken to exploit the cheap source of labor, to clear the area to be used as a port, and to learn knowledge of how to survive in the new land, the Indians endured. Some were Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Blackfoot. Even then, there was thought of Mardi Gras, as the white men of the colony of mobile, formed a Boeuf Graf Society.
Then in 1718, Jean-Baptise Le Moyne', Pierre's brother, founded the port colony and river fort of Nouvelle Orle'ans, (New Orleans). Indians slaves are among the thieves, cut throats, prostitutes, and beggars that were the first settlers.
But the Indians were not highly prized as slaves because, their love of freedom was so fierce, that they would run into the bayou and disappear into other camps which the French and later the Spanish wouldn't dare venture into.
Slaves from Africa & the West Indies Arrive
A call went out the governor to appropriate African slaves for the area, since they were known to be better workers and could not survive in the swamp. A mere year later, in 1719, the first 2 shiploads of African Slaves arrive at the port of New Orleans, for sale in New Orleans.
Napoleon also used the port for a respite for the slaves and crew after the trip from Africa to give the crew a chance to clean and re-outfit the ships for the trip to Haiti. Slaves were given their first chance, in 2 to 6 months, to stretch out on dry land. Some would be sold here. Most were held in the slave pens all along, on what is now Camp street.
For two years things were kept in order, as the African, West Indies, and Haitian slaves were trained in running plantations and working there. Slowly, the slaves and the Indians began to understand each other's language, and this improved their co-operative efforts to work in harmony together. It also gave them the way to plan things, such as escapes. So, it was inevitable, that in 1722, the first known escape of a slave from a plantation, took place. In the archives, there is no mention of if he was ever found. One must assume that he was never heard from again.
An Alliance is Sought and formed
Three years later in 1725, archives now record for the first time, some known successful cases of blacks escaping into the bayou, aided by the native Indians of the area. It is said that tribes such as the Choctaw, Seminoles and Chickasaws in Louisiana were responsible for freeing some of the African and men of color from slavery.
With the Indians help, the slaves learn to survive off the land and lived in the forest camps, just outside the city. These camps come to be known as Maroon Camps. Blacks relationship with Indians would spawn a section of the populous that was frightened and they would indeed write and state that the last thing that the colony needed was Indians and slaves becoming allies. They were intentionally kept from one another. They had good cause to be frightened, because in 1729 most of the 280 African Slaves owned by a company of the West Indies, join with the Natchez Indians in what became known as the " Natchez Revolt."
It was an attempt by the Indians to prevent their sacred lands from being seized, as the French tried to develop their Fledgling tobacco industry. The Indians has promised the slaves freedom, in exchange for their help, and along with 176 Indian braves, the force attacked their captors. But they were betrayed by one of the sailors of the West Indies company that had accidentally overheard the plans. The revolt was put down with amazing savageness. Some of the slaves were beheaded and their heads mounted on pikes and placed on the levee, to frighten and warn others as to what would happen, if it ever happened again. This show of force was so successful, that no other attempts were recorded for two years. The french colonist, convinced that all was now under control, relaxed the rules andthe First recorded reference to slaves dancing at gatherings held on the plantations were found in the archives, in the year, 1732.
African Slaves were highly valued at this time in New Orleans history, as were the free men of color for their considerable trade skills. The colony, still under French rule, had a sort of live and let live approach to slavery, so much so, that slaves were " given the weekend off " to earn money and go into town. Negroes had the trust of the french, so much, that some slaves and the free men of color, were formed into a fighting force of mulatto troops, to defend the fort in case of attack by Indians. Two years later, in 1736, Governor Beinville and his Negro troops attacked the English and their Indian allies in the Chickasaw War. Simon, a Free Negro who accompanied Bienville, led a company of 45 to 50 free Negroes, in that battle.
Indeed trust had been established by the Negroes, in order to gain some of the advantages freedom could bring. So much so, that in 1744, the "Place de Negroes", (later known as Congo Square) becomes the established place to meet, transact business, get news, etc, openly, on Sundays, for free men of color, and later for the area slaves, as they began to sell, and produce other goods to accumulate money to buy their freedom. These slaves would gather by the hundreds on Sunday afternoons to sing and dance in their traditional style at Congo Plains (now the site of Louis Armstrong Park).
But the slaves, had not abandoned their thirst for freedom. They had formed a plan and meeting in the square enabled them to perfect their plans. But this would prove to be time consuming and slow. They relied on the Indians to help negotiate the swamps and continued to cultivate their relationship with them, even establishing a sort of underground railroad to the maroon camps where possible.
Banishment to the Underground!
It was at this time the Negroes were very thankful to have such allies, and in 1746 archives begin to refer to slaves dressing as Indians as the African Americans began to celebrate Mardi Gras in their unique customary fashion. These were in all likelihood, the first known " Black Indians ". Slaves escaped where ever they could and were tracked as far as the camps, in many instances. Indeed in 1756, the trickle became a flood as more than 40 slaves escape into the swamps and bayou's of the state. Aided by the "Maroon camps", their numbers began to swell as free men of color. Squaws are known to be in the camps, and some bear children which are known as mulatto's. Twenty years of this went on, and escapes were really becoming a problem. Indeed at one point, the governor threw up his hands and declared, "Where are those n.g...s running too? There's nothing out there but swamp!".
In 1771, the Free Men of color were now holding parties in the back areas of the cities and in the Maroon Camps, during Mardi Gras celebrations, and still dressing with the Indians, while adopting their ways. But because of the mass of escapes plus the fact that some of these Creoles were sneaking in to the balls, something had to be done. The sneak ins were only discovered days afterwards, causing great embarrassments to the cream of society. In 1781, the Spanish administration of the city at the Cabildo, granted a prohibition of black persons from being masked, wearing feathers, and attending night balls. This only forced them to now dress and roam only in the black neighborhoods and Congo Square.
In 1783, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was formed by free men of color, to serve as a unique form of insurance and social aide to the Negroes. This was the first of of what would become hundreds of such organizations, that would become the cornerstone of most of the African American walking clubs, and Carnival Organizations of present.
During the next ten or so years, things remained quite, but the stream of escapes began to wear Spanish lawmakers the wrong way. A way had to be found to stem the tide of escapes. Then in 1795, twenty -three conspirators were hanged when the Spanish authorities allegedly discovered plans for a slave uprising from the free men of color, who themselves, owned slaves. The bodies hung from gibbets for several days along the river. But even during all of this, things were were about to get twenty times worse.
During the years of 1783 to 1803, life under Spanish/French rule, free Negro's and free men of color, were an integral part of the colonial militia whose peacetime duties were patrolling the streets of New Orleans after dark and the maintenance of Law and Order. This had allowed them to trade off favors for money and a chance at freedom. But along came the year 1803, and the Louisiana Purchase takes place. America Troops march into New Orleans to take possession of the colony. Things will never be the same for the slaves, Creoles, and free men of color, after the "arrogant Americans arrived".
With the acquisition of Louisiana, Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the fledgling U.S. and made it a world power. Later, 13 states or parts of states were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase territory. The laws changed over night, and no more slaves were to be set free. Americans acted very nasty as opposed to the french and Spanish. To top it off, the Americans didn't allow any Indians to enter the city. The first sign of real trouble was in 1804, when fights began to break out as tempers flare about whether French or English music is to be played at the Carnival balls. New ordinance requires two policeman to be present and no weapons to be carried at the balls. For 6 years things got progressively worse for the African slaves on the plantations.
The year 1811 brought the greatest slave revolt in American history in St. John Parish, as an estimated 500 field hands walked off the upriver plantations. But they were sandwiched between Federal troops moving down from Baton Rouge, giving chase, and the Battalion of soldiers made up of Free Men of color. They were trapped. Though well organized, they had been betrayed before they could get to New Orleans, with the battle ending in Jefferson Parish in what is today, Kenner, La. The revolt was put down savagely, by 1 company of Mulattos, troops (consisting of Indians, Negro's, Creoles, and free men of color) Some of the surviving Negroes, and Creoles slaves began to tell who was involved in the revolt after repeated beatings. This lead to a general feeling of uneasiness, and charges of insurrection ( at the link: reference record #183 - # 202 and records #227 - #242 ) being brought not only against the actual participants, but any slave thought to be a trouble maker, whether he took part or not. (ref record # 187, 14 yrs old and records #238 - #242) It took some time to find all the accused slaves, upwards to 3 years, even then, some still managed to escape north.
Because of the fear generated by the 1811 slave revolt, all gatherings by slaves and free men of color were prohibited. This ended all masking by the Indians in Congo square. They had to alter their plans, routes and dates to remain undiscovered. This sent the Mardi Gras Indians into deep hiding. But the art was still practiced, and by now the costumes for which they are extremely famous for began to appear.
It wouldn't be until 1835, that the Black Indians, would resurfaced, in the known archives.
Rebirth of a tradition!
Theculture however survived despite being forced underground by the fear of rebellion after the 1811 Slave revolt, and later as the"Jim Crow" laws of the 1890's. A tradition that keeps alive the memory of a two century bond between African-American and Native Americans. TheNative Americans and the African slaves share a reverence for the spirits of their ancestors a strong belief in the celebration of seasonal changes and the use of ritual costumes.
It is a West African tradition to signal respect for one's host by dressing like them at ritual celebrations. There is strong evidence that the costumes of modern day Mardi Gras Indians are a cross between Africa ritual costumes and that of the Native American. This is likely because of the fact that the slaves sold here were mostly from the west African nations that captured and sold slaves to the white traders that frequented the coasts at that time in history.
The Black Indian nation is loosely organized into, what was originally called, "gangs", now called and known as "tribes", which labor all year long in some loose secretive way, creating magnificent "suits" consisting of intricate hand beading , false gems and stones, and decorative feathers and plumes as well as symbolic accouterments like rifles sticks (staffs), shields and tribal flags. They wear long braided wigs or wear tied bandanas on their heads to shield the headpieces from body oil and dirt. They also wear crowns to the beaded and feathered costumes and use moccasin-style footwear. Some nowwearthe same color " tights ", where possible to aid in keeping cool.
This blending of the two cultures have spawned a new unique tradition.
On Mardi Gras day, each year, "tribes" of black Indians, parade through their own neighborhoods singing and dancing to traditional chants, particularly unique to the Mardi Gras Indians. They do this to re-claim territory, and still for some, it is to "settle old scores", with rival tribes. But the tradition, has but one root cause and meaning, "To honor the Indians that helped us in our struggle to reclaim our freedom."
The "Dark Side" of Heritage
But there was a dark side to the tradition as well. New Orleans culture has beenlively and diverse, but certain held prejudices, by the people, white and black, caused rifts. Since the early 1800's, the cultural differences of the French, Spanish, and Anglo fostered a rivalry between the districts. These racial and cultural differences were passed on, to the African American community as well, and indeed exists even today.
The districts, the uptown and downtown areas, hold two groups of Indians, the group with West Indian roots, and a group with African roots. The two groups of Indians, subsequently, exhibit those tendencies to show their respective distain for each other.
In the early decades, the two groups would manifest this resentment in physical fights among themselves on the days of masking. There would be gunfights, and shootouts. Stabbings, and hatchet attacks, as tribes would meet each other. It was during the times of best opportunity, times when the NOPD or "police", "the man", was stretched to the departments operational limits, that the tribes took to the streets of Nawlins'. During this time of Carnival, police were busy controlling the crowds of Bourbon street in the French Quarter, and the parade crowds on St. Charles Av. Most often, they didn't have the man power or sometimes even the desire to respond to calls of violence in the black section of town. This was "prime time to settle up", on old debts, scores and revenge for perceived wrong doings. Many accounts of wives and mothers crying as their men, and sons wandered off are told, because they didn't know whether or not they would see their loved ones alive again.
Those were the days when the Indians would indeed shoot or stab a rival tribe member. This was a time when if you masked you were deemed of questionable character and no one wanted to be around you for fear they would come to harm. Participants were family members, neighbors, and friends, all wouldfind themselves immersed in the lore of the Indians as well as their music and activities.... and their weekly "Indian practices". The secularization of the public ritual parading in New Orleans took many decades to disappear, so much time was taken, in fact, that much of the original symbolism in the parading attire and the unique cult language of the Sunday tribes has been lost or very difficult to retrieve via oral sources.
It was during this time when the public began to refer to the Black Indians as Mardi Gras Indians, since the best season to catch sight of one would be in Carnival season, andprime time to see them was on Mardi Gras day
Many Indians have remarked that the dancing traditions only mimic what was once ritualistic warfare. they have also stated that the craft of producing the costumes have all changed dramatically in the past few decades. The formal etiquette that surrounded Indian street activities for at least a century has lost much of its continuity and detail. In later decades, the distain finally gave way to a less physical way of resolving these conflicts of who were the best tribes. The method: Who could sew the most beautiful costume.
A New and Unique Showdown!
In the late 1940's the Indians began to realize that the killing of each other was not the way and by the late 1960's, the wave of violence has pretty much given way to a whole new form of showdown on the Bayou of St. John. Enter the costume pose down!
As to the stoning and beading of costumes-- these brilliant spectacles are made of colorful ostrich plumes, feathers, sequins, rhinestones, ribbons, and beads. Each suit represents many hundreds of hours of effort by the individual Indian and other helpers and is worn only one season before it is broken down. This hand sewn suit contains specific parts. A vest usually covers the chest and back and sometimes a dickey is worn around the neck. Under the arms are wings that open up when the arms are extended. Once the wrists may have been additional decorative "sleeves." Below the waist--both in the front and back--is a large apron the last often being the most elaborate. Designs are sketched on canvas "patches" and painstakingly beaded and "stoned" into the costume. Each patch or design tells a story and must be in harmony with the dominant color of the costume. The beaded patches which are the base of many suits, are works of art, and worthy of preservation as a form of true indigenous folk art.
The Indians keep this traditions alive through great personal sacrifice as an Indian suit may cost many thousands of dollars. Estimates of material, time and labor run from a low of$18,000 to a high of $57,000 dollars. Through generations the suits have become more elaborate. Each creation stands alone as a work of art. It is with a great deal of pride and pleasure that we salute the families of those African-American men, women, and children who make and wear the costumes.
Although each suit is a spectacular visual manifestation of the Black Indian culture, it is by no means the sole method of expression. Individual members of the tribe exhibit extraordinary skills in confrontational posturing, music singing, and role playing.
One by one, dancing in toe/heel fashion, each member of a tribe meets his counterpart. Spyboy first meets Spyboy. Flagboy meets Flagboy. Wildman, thenfirst, second, and third chiefs, queen(s) and children, all meet and play out their traditional roles. And finally one big chief faces another. Knees bent, arms outspread, swaying from foot to foot, and turning in a circular motion the chiefs slowly size up each other. This preening proves especially effective for showing off the costumes. Prestige for the tribe is garnered through the beauty and intricacy of the suits role playing and the strength of its presence in the community.
This ritualized dance, and miniature competition, drawing both from the African and Native American heritage, occurs only when one tribe meets another. The competition is to exhibit the most beautiful suit. Elaborately plumed and intricately beaded costumes are the distinguishing features of the Mardi Gras Indians. Each year on Mardi Gras Day, St. Joseph's Day and Super Sunday, with some other appearances during the year, neighborhood tribes display their dazzling, colorful costume artistry. The tribes move through the community in informal competition with a call -and-response chant punctuated by drums, tambourines and makeshift instruments. When opposing tribes meet, there is dancing and general "showing off," all with a shared pride in "suiting up as Indian." Participants in this street theater - with accompanying percussive rhythms, creolized song texts, and colorful feathered explosions - reflect respect and homage to the American Indian and the African ancestral legacy. Since the tribes have no set routes for their day's "journeys" whether they meet each other, or not, is sometimes entirely a matter of chance. To witness this procession, it is the custom to wait- perhaps from dawn-outside the house of one of the big chiefs. Song lyrics, are accompanied by "percussive instrument" ... the banging drums cow bells and tambourines are customarily "called" by the big chief. The tribe and its crowd of enthusiastic followers "respond" sometimes chanting a traditional chorus of words that have no common meaning and often derived from the early Creole language. These songs, although similar are rarely,-if ever- sung, in just the same way by all the tribes although they lay claim to the same repertoire. The tempo may be relaxed or fast depending upon the mood of the singers, but it remains consistent throughout the song. Competition is nurtured in a creative climate that awards prestige and respect to the person, who is able to out-sew, out-dress, and out-sing" another Black Indian of equal rank from another tribe.
This culture like so many other micro ethnic cultures, is highly stressed and, at worse, is in extreme danger of passing out of existence. Young blacks in economically depressed New Orleans, and therefore are hard-pressed to become Mardi Gras Indians, and older members are beginning to retire leaving few to attempt the skill, patience, and sacrifice necessary to continue the tradition, by passing it along to the next person. At best the culture is succumbing to change, brought about by the external pressures of the need to survive modern day commercial threats, and the inability to resist conforming to society's demands for familiar sameness. To be an Indian is a very special calling. It means defying seemingly overwhelming forces and making a stand for individual power. That power is often exhibited in 'being pretty' and in 'playing Indian' well.
In reality Mardi Gras is not the real focus of the black-Indian ritual cycle which runs for several days, and events throughout the year and includes St. Joseph's Day as well as Fat Tuesday. The earliest documented parading of black-Indians occurred during holy day processions and military dress parades of the century-long colonial era and continued through the Antebellum decades.
The Indian culture is under siege, because of many external pressures: the shear cost of materials such as textiles, and rhinestones for example; the tedious time-consuming nature of the sewing and beading; the fading of family and neighborhood support. To these factors, must be added the ironic fact of outside attention which though it may bring sympathetic interest to bear on a besieged folk-culture tends at the same time to distort the Indian's craft and performance thereby presenting a challenge to its authenticity; media and public attention may have an insidiously seductive effect on some individuals who may prefer to mask and parade on the big day without "paying dues" in the sense of producing one's own costume from scratch. Participants may be encouraged to play to an outside audience rather than maintain and focus upon communication between and among tribes and between tribe members and the larger neighborhood. The fact that each artisan operates alone and conceals his creative production until the day of its debut ought not beguile the observer into thinking that the Indian culture is a purely individualistic one. In fact it depends for its continuance upon the interplay of artisan family tribal alliance and neighborhood.
America is festooned with large cities having marginal areas of impoverished and miserable underclass inhabitants who cycle through life known only to their immediate relatives. Though New Orleans also presents some of these pictures there is more. The traditionally neglected and outcast classes of the New Orleans underground have for centuries responded with counter narratives, counter music, and counter art forms of many kinds. That is they have responded to creatively to their condition and heritage. Louis Armstrong was a waif from an orphanage who revolutionized popular music and became New Orleans' first world citizen. In the case of the Indians we find a parallel creative response to like conditions. As there are many biographies of Armstrong none actually identifies who he is. He remains a mystery.
Soon, unless a way is found to help, the Indians may well pass from us.
Selected passages of this Mardi Gras Indians page are from Narrative by Christopher Porche' West. We acknowledge Mr. West's contribution to this site and page. Most of these dates and historical data have been verified by articles, web references, http://www.rosecity.net/cherokee/blackindians.html andfrom saved clippings and articles from the old Creole newspaper, " The Bee ", Times-Picayune archives, reference sources at Tulane University, "Mardi Gras Indians", " Arthur Hardy Mardi Gras Guide: 23rd Edition" by Arthur Hardy Enterprises, Amistad Resource Ctr, @ New Orleans, La. and " Negro Slavery in Louisiana", by Joe Gray Taylor, 1963, Cajun and Creole Folktales (Ancelet 1994), and The Spanish Tradition in Louisiana (Armistead 1992) and many other independent sources. These many sources when brought together give you a picture of what the Indians have endured and where they have been.