Mardi Gras Indians Will Parade Through New Orleans in Native-Inspired Costumes
Tomorrow, on Mardi Gras Day, African Americans will dawn ornate costumes of colorful fabrics and feathers, inspired by traditional American Indian regalia, and parade through the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Since the the mid-19th century, and possibly earlier, the Mardi Gras Indians, composed primarily of the blacks of New Orleans' inner cities, have been "masking" themselves in elaborate suits and marching throughout the town. But according to The Advocate, their parade is probably the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition.
Slavery and racism reportedly fueled this off-shoot celebration, as a few residents of the city's ghettos felt they couldn't participate in the main New Orleans parade. These blacks gradually developed their own festival, which is said to have originated from a respect and admiration of American Indians who helped runaway slaves. In an effort to circumvent laws implementing racial segregation, many blacks also represented themselves as Indians.
The Mardi Gras Indians are divided into "Krewes" or invented Indian "tribes" named by the streets of their ward or gang.
Previously, only males could be members of Mardi Gras Indian tribes. But in the late 20th-century, women joined in the celebration. As the tradition advanced in the 20th Century, participants began asserting their status with more elaborate suits, songs and dances. The revelers design a new costume each year. When large Caribbean populations descended upon New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indians suits began to incorporate those cultural influences.
Each year on Fat Tuesday, Larry Bannock, president of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, wears an original, hand-beaded and feathered suit that weighs between 100 and 150 pounds, and marches throughout New Orleans. When he approaches another Indian chief, he often greets him by removing the heavier part of his suit.
"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," Bannock says.
On Fat Tuesday, February 21, the Mardi Gras Indians will take to the streets. The parade generally concludes with a costume contest of Mardi Gras Indians. Many of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes also parade on the Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph's Day on March 19 ("Super Sunday") and sometimes at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, held April 27 through May 6 this year.
Watch a video segment of the Mardi Gras Indians parade from 2009: