One of the most mysterious, fascinating and colorful pieces of New Orleans’ cultural quilt belongs to Mardi Gras Indians, also referred to as Black Masking Indians. A unique and historic subculture of New Orleans, Black Masking Indians and their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native Americans provided safe refuge and a sense of community for runaway slaves. Black Masking Indian culture is influenced by both ancestral enslaved Africans and the friendship forged with Native Americans.
When African Americans were later banned from mainstream Mardi Gras Krewes, they created their own celebration known as Carnival in their own neighborhoods. Delayed but not deterred, various communities of eager paraders took to their respective neighborhoods and began celebrating on their own. These various communities would continue on to make up their own tribes of Mardi Gras Indians for decades.
Both hierarchical and territorial, there are over 40 Black Masking Indian tribes throughout the city of New Orleans, including the Wild Magnolias, the Young Maasai Hunters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Bayou Renegades and the Golden Feather Hunters. Each tribe has positions among its members such as Big Chief, Big Queen, Spy Boy and Flag Boy. Each position holds an individual responsibility in the tribe.
Stretching from Uptown to downtown, each tribe has its own customs, traditions, history and of course, style. Their hand-sewn creations feature intricate beadwork and dramatic images and rank among the nation's best folk art. Worn just once, the suits take an entire year to create and can cost thousands of dollars depending on the member’s position in the tribe and craftsmanship. With hundreds of thousands of beads, brightly dyed ostrich plumes, sequins, velvet and rhinestones sewn on by hand, some end up weighing as much as 150 pounds. Mardi Gras Indian suits are truly a labor of love and tradition.
Just as other elements vary by tribe, suits are no exception. Uptown Indians tend to use more rhinestones and feathers, and are known for flat beaded designs, pulling from more Native American influences, whereas Downtown Indians often build three-dimensional structures as part of their designs, and use sequins and feathers insipired from more African Influences.
Music, typically call-and-response chanting with tambourines and other handheld percussion plays a central role in the Mardi Gras Indian masking (when the tribes take to the streets). With their formal hierarchy, the Indians grace the streets of New Orleans’ neighborhoods in friendly competition over which suits are the “prettiest.” The famous New Orleans tune “Iko Iko” with the lyrics, “My flag boy and your flag boy, sitting by the fire,” is rooted in Mardi Gras Indian tradition as is the New Orleans standard “Hey Pocky Way.”
You can spot Mardi Gras Indians on Fat Tuesday, Super Sunday and St. Joseph Day when their celebratory spirits shine most. You might even catch a tribe or two performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
If you can’t make any of these beloved events or celebrations, during any given day of the year you can visit The Backstreet Cultural Museum or the House of Dance and Feathers to learn more about the unique and deep history of Mardi Gras Indians.