Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition
"Mardi Gras Indians are secretive because only certain people participated in masking--people with questionable character. In the old day, the Indians were violent. Indians would meet on Mardi Gras; it was a day to settle scores." - Larry Bannock, President, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council
Mardi Gras is full of secrets, and the Mardi Gras Indians are as much a part of that secret society as any other carnival organization. The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised, in large part, of the African-American communities of New Orleans' inner city. They have paraded for well over a century, yet their parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition.
"Mardi Gras Indians--the parade most white people don't see. The ceremonial procession is loose, the parade is not scheduled for a particular time or route...that is up to the Big Chief." - Larry Bannock
Typical Mardi Gras organizations will form a "krewe". A krewe often names their parade after a particular Roman or Greek mythological hero or god. The ranking structure of a Mardi Gras Krewe is a parody of royalty: King, Queen, Dukes, Knights and Captains, or some variation on that theme. Many more established krewes allowed membership by invitation only.
Few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. The black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their krewes are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang.
The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. They have never forgotten this support.
In the past, Mardi Gras was a violent day for many Mardi Gras Indians. It was a day often used to settle scores. The police were often unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding Mardi Gras events in the city, when the streets were crowded and everyone was masked. This kept many families away from the "parade," and created much worry and concern for a mother whose child wanted to join the "Indians".
"'I'm gonna mask that morning if it costs me my life!' That morning you pray and ask God to watch over you, cause everybody is bucking for number one." - Larry Bannock
Today when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass one another, you will see a living theater of art and culture. Each tribe's style and dress is on display...in a friendly but competitive manner, they compare one another's art and craftsmanship.
The greeting of the Big Chiefs of two different tribes often starts with a song, chant, ceremonial dance, and threatening challenge to "Humba"--the Big Chief's demand that the other bow and pay respect. The retort is a whoop and equally impressive song and war dance with the reply, "Me no Humba, YOU Humba!"
"You know when you've won, you see it in their eyes." - Larry Bannock
Although there was a history of violence, many now choose to keep this celebration friendly. Each Big Chief will eventually stand back and, with a theatrical display of self-confidence, acknowledge the artistry and craftsmanship of the other's suit.
Before the progression can continue, the two Big Chiefs will often comment privately to one another, "Looking good, baby, looking good!"
"After Mardi Gras, you thank GOD that you made it." - Larry Bannock
Mardi Gras is no longer a day to "settle scores" among the Mardi Gras Indians. Violence is a relic of the past. It is now Mardi Gras tradition and practice for the Indians to simply compare their tribal song, dance and dress with other tribes as they meet that day. Each Indian has invested thousands of hours and dollars in the creation of his suit, and is not willing to risk ruining it in a fight. This tradition, rich with folk art and history, is now appreciated by museums and historical societies around the world. It is a remarkable and welcome change from the past.
The history and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians is a significant part of Mardi Gras and New Orleans--yet until now, it has been the least appreciated and least understood. We hope you enjoy reading about it as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you! We thank the Mardi Gras Indian Council for opening their history books, and sharing their history and traditions with us!
The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council was formed in 1987 to help preserve and enrich the Indian Culture. In August of 1992, the Big Chiefs of each of the major tribes gathered together for a historic celebration of unity. The event, christened "Glad Yu Kum," was commemorated with a fine art painting by New Orleans artist Mark Andresen. Planet Publishing created the limited-edition lithographic poster. One hundred percent of the proceeds from sales went directly to the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council to maintain and preserve this unique culture. These limited-edition lithographic posters are no longer available.
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