Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Mardi Gras Indians
Here’s a tradition we just don’t have in the Bay Area: In New Orleans, people dress up as Indians and parade around in feathered outfits.
Not just anyone does this, though. These so-called Mardi-Gras Indians are exclusively African-American. My understanding is that these parades take place with the blessing of the Native American community, because the outfits are adopted in recognition of the fact that both blacks and Indians were treated as second-class citizens in New Orleans, excluded from white traditions like Mardi Gras krewes. It’s also said that the southern African-American collective memory has not forgotten that escaped slaves often were sheltered by Native American tribes, though why this gratitude would be expressed in feathers is not entirely clear. As with a lot of New Orleans legends and traditions, the truth is almost certainly lost to time.
Today Mardi Gras Indian groups are social clubs whose organization mirrors mostly white krewes. Krewes are ruled by kings and queens and named after Greek mythological figures; Mardi Gras Indian tribes have chiefs and are named after local landmarks. At Mardi Gras, tribes dress in colorful, feathery, beaded outfits that weigh 50 pounds and chase each other around the neighborhood in ritualized mock confrontations with dancing and chanting. (Interestingly, the song Iko Iko is about this kind of encounter—the lyrics make a little more sense knowing this, but not a lot.)
Unfortunately, Mardi Gras was long over by the time we got to New Orleans, so we didn’t get to see a real parade. But some tribes did march at Jazz Fest. Pipi and I have half a mind to go to Mardi Gras one year so that we can see this for ourselves. In the Bay Area, you do sometimes get people in feathered outfits, but they’re usually just expressing their appreciation of Cher, and you hardly ever get enough in once place for a parade.
This woman is a part of a tribe called the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Rhythm Section.