Thursday, 2 April 2009



The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians goes back to the stories of Native American Indians who looked after African run-away slaves and accepted them as FELLOW HUMANS. Native Americans had many faults like everyone but they had no concept of one human being being another's material property! These run-away slaves intermarried with the indiginous people's and there are a few cases of black men become Chiefs of Tribes and trying to free other slaves. There is very little Indian blood left in Louisiana but the memories live on!

Each parish chooses their own chief and he assembles a tribe including spy boy, second in command, indian princess, wild men and sometimes many more but those are the essentials. Each one has their job - the Spyboy has to run ahead and keep the chief informed about other Indian tribes in the vicinity.

A Wildman

The Wildman or Wildmen watch his back and are permanently guarding the Chief. They often dress in bone costumes - voodoo style - and are often the only tribe members who are white - maybe because their faces are usually covered by masks!

Pierre as Wildman for Keito's tribe on St Joseph's night parade - which ended in a bit of a shoot out down town.

The Chief is always addressed Chief - even during everyday situations - and he remains chief sometimes for years until someone else is chosen to take over. He carries a decorated oversize rifle usually with a name written with crepe-like-ribbons on its side. He brandishes this and leads his musicians about who follow singing his praises and beating tambourines and drums until the time (I never saw) when he crosses another Indian chief and they face each other off with battles of the wits - exchanging insults, friendly or viscous.

Keito - our local chief with Forest - my neighbour - the dude with the beard holding the pole

Local street cleaners, delivery men, housewives, carpenters, mechanics turn into amazingly dressed Native Americans for the day. They are normal people who transform into beautiful heros and the legends of the community giving pride to their followers and making their life bigger than real life. These are normal people who bust a gut all year to get their new costume together and then live it to the max. NO government funding, NO arts council funding, NO outside help, NO justification - just community pride and solidarity. These things HAVE to come from the community! Screw all the people that complain they have not got enough money for their project - that never stopped the Cyclowns and never ever ever stopped the Indians! Art is part of being human! It costs money of course but it is your identity and makes life beautiful and is often as high in human priorities as eating and there are no government-funded eating lotteries so I am not being moronic!

Some old Costumes from the late 90s in Treme museum
You need to dig into your roots and community and you will find more than money - skills, dedication, energy, spirit, pride and love - all things that are often missing from government funded art projects! Artists need respect but they also need to earn it! When they earn it and get it that is a healthy society. When people are spending a lot of money to see some wierd contemporary dance show and some graffitti artist is getting fined for making beautiful murals then society is ill. Everything grows up and watering land with no seed or bad earth is a barren exercise!

Anyhow, preaching over.

On St Joseph's night every year they gather in their neighbourhoods after dark and process about showing themselves off before driving down town for the big get-together where they face off other chiefs and the chief of chiefs is decided upon. The sunday after many Indians come out on parade (without the hostilities) and link up with the second line. At St Joseph's night event there were some scuffles and a gun was fired but the sunday was very peaceful and fun - I wandered ahead of the Second Line to look at them all.

There were more Indians than i could count: over 60 or so, dressed up in their finest costumes with feathers all over the place. The most impressive and active fella was a tall fellow with a huge tomahawk made from feathers and a massive light-kharki colored costume with matching feathers that spread around him in every direction for a meter or two. On his chest and lower skirt there were two huge pictures in beadwork - one of Indians attacking a hill-top of semi naked blond haired white chicks and in the fore ground they were binding one chick with her boobs out and going to do something with her! It looked more than a bit suspicious.

Some old Costumes from the late 90s in Treme museum
On the lower skirt was a more politically correct picture showing 3 indians with bows and arrows and tomahawks burning a wagon full of cowboys and scalping one hopeless cowboy on a horse. The wagon was on fire of corse and the indians and their horses seemed to be flying while the cowboys were squat and heavy.

Beadwork on an Indian's back
The chief wearing these costumes would wave his huge feather tomahawk about the air repeatedly and lick his lips with a big dog like tongue which huge out at the side as he posed with his axe aloft and his legs wide apart and his face screwed up in a look of calculating anger at an invisible foe. Suddenly he would charge ahead in erratic leaps and huge jumps and wave his tongue in the air and hoot and wail and jabber in pidgin english about himself in the thrid person: "Big chief is the coolest, YAH YAH! I pretty front and back, I show you niggers how to be black! RAAAAH! HOOO, HOO, HOO!" etc..... There were many more Indians in even more beautiful costumes but he looked the most authentic of them all! Despite the stories of mixed Creol, Indian and Slave blood the vast majority have no native blood at all but are pure Afro-American - but like the folks in Green on St Patricks day, that is no reason to not celebrate an ancient tradition!

Mardi gras indians on the Super Sunday parade

Indians at the end of the Super Sunday march resting their heavy costumes on the grass

No comments:

Post a Comment