One of the most mysterious, fascinating and colorful pieces of the New Orleans cultural quilt belongs to the Mardi Gras Indians. Their hand-sewn creations feature intricate beadwork and dramatic images and rank among the nation's best folk art. Worn just once, the costumes take an entire year to create, 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.
Music, typically call-and-response chanting with tambourines and other handheld percussion, plays a central role in the Mardi Gras Indian spectacle. With a formal hierarchy of chiefs, spy boys, flag boys, big chiefs, and other unique roles, the Indians grace the streets of New Orleans’ neighborhoods on Fat Tuesday in friendly competition over which chief is 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.”
Mardi Gras Indians trace their roots back to a time when Native Americans helped shield runaway slaves before the Civil War. Shut out from much of Carnival because of segregation, African-Americans began to celebrate in their own neighborhoods and honor those Native Americans. Today, there are more than 50 Indian tribes in the city with names like the Wild Magnolias, the Golden Eagles, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Bayou Renegades. Look for them at Jazzfest and then out on the streets on “Super Sunday” which is the Sunday after St. Joseph’s Day and during Mardi Gras when their celebratory spirits shine most.