Mardi Gras Indian Masks
The History of the Masking of the Mardi Gras Indians is a rich one. "If I had a heart attack at 92, I'd still mask. In New Orleans, you don't need a reason to do what you do, you do it because that's the way it is!"
- Larry Bannock, President, New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council
When we first talked to Larry Bannock about the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians, we didn't realize how fascinating it would be. We would like to thank Larry for opening up his world and his home to us as he shares this long-held but little-known Mardi Gras and St. Joseph Day tradition with us. Most importantly, we have learned a lot about character.
Masking as an Indian means designing and creating a new costume every year. Larry Bannock wears a hand-beaded and feathered suit of original design that weighs between 100 and 150 pounds. He wears this suit as he marches throughout the city on Mardi Gras Day, meeting the other chiefs along the way (see history). At times, he removes the heavier part of the suit, replacing it as he approaches another Indian Chief.
"Downtown Indians use sequins, feathers; Uptown Indians use beads, rhinestones, feathers. The only time Downtown and Uptown Indians come together is to parade on St. Joseph's day." - Larry Bannock
There are distinct design differences between the costumes of the Downtown Indians and the Uptown Indians. When they meet, each Indian is proud of the costume he has created...and a silent comparison of their beauty takes place. To honor the Italians, the Indians again suit up and meet on the evening of St. Joseph's day in and around their neighborhoods. However, all of the Mardi Gras Indians come together to celebrate what they call "Super Sunday" with a parade. It is a beautiful sight and occurs during the day on a Sunday near St. Joseph's Day.
"Making an Indian suit comes from your heart; the Indian suit for next year is in my mind. You have to feel something about the patch. It has to mean something to you--the eagle, the buffalo--every patch I do is a spirit. You have to be on fire." - Larry Bannock
Making a new suit is time-consuming and must be planned carefully. An Indian's costume may take up to a year to complete, starting with the conception of an idea for next year's suit. Ordering material, designing layout, sewing and beadwork follow. Larry, an uptown Indian Chief and President of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, had the design picked out for his '97 suit before Mardi Gras of '96.
After an artist friend draws the image upon the canvas, Larry decides upon the colored beads he will use to create a patch for his costume. The beadwork is done entirely by hand...and he does all of it himself. This bead art and the plumage selected each year make a glorious combination of color and texture that render his costumes such extraordinary works of art that some are now on display in museums throughout the country.
"Masking as a Mardi Gras Indian...it's dying, because it costs...over $1,000 for rhinestones, $320.00 for velvet, hundreds for beads, hundreds more for the feathers...it costs, yeah. People with families to support find it difficult." - Larry Bannock
One of the reasons there is so much interest in the Mardi Gras Indians is because it seems to be a dying tradition. When the costumes were made from whatever material could be found, there were many Indians. However, the designs of the costumes have become so elaborate that it is very difficult for many to afford the expense. Larry is able to afford to make his costume due to the generosity of some of his friends who contribute their skills and hard work. He is also asked to speak to others around the country about the rich history of the Mardi Gras Indian, and whatever he makes helps finance his next year's costume. However, it is often a struggle.
"Rex has designers; its King has no say on his costume. My suit is ME! I do the patchwork and rhinestones. I have people helping me hook up now, but there's only two patches I didn't do: a rattlesnake and a hatchet-- given to me by two older Indians. I'll always wear those patches." - Larry Bannock
Typical of Mardi Gras tradition, rarely will anyone outside of the immediate family and close friends have an opportunity to witness a suit's creation before Mardi Gras. National Geographic and 48 Hours, however, were lucky enough to go behind the scenes while doing a special on this tradition. The television crews even pitched in during the last hectic days before Mardi Gras.
Larry assures us that it is all worthwhile for him when, on Mardi Gras morning, he steps out of his home into his waiting neighborhood in all of his glory.
In my opinion, his Mardi Gras Indian costume often surpasses the quality, intricacy and artistry seen in the costumes of many Mardi Gras Kings and Queens. To see the Indians in their suits marching, dancing, and singing is to see art come alive.
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