[Marxism] Mardi Gras Indians

John A Imani johnaimani3 at gmail.com
Sun Feb 17 09:43:56 MST 2013

(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.)

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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.”
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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 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

*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 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.

Full and photos at:



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