Mardi Gras Indians: New Orleans’ Fine Feathered Friends

The history and mystery behind the magnificent maskers

Until actually reading “A Christmas Carol” in 7th grade, I was sure Ebenezer Scrooge was from New Orleans. No one had ever told me that, I’d come to the conclusion because all I knew about Scrooge was his catchphrase, “Bah, humbug!” And I knew what a humbug was.

A humbug is a battle. Two men, covered from head to toe in heavy, hand-sewn suits of brightly dyed plumes and beaded patches, meet in the street. They stomp and dance. A crowd of onlookers gathers as they call back and forth. “I’m the prettiest chief! Humbah!” yells one. “I’m the prettiest,” responds the other, “and you best bow down!”

The masked men are Mardi Gras Indians, members of tribes like the Yellow Pocahontas, the Flaming Arrows and the Fi-Yi-Yi.

Mardi Gras Indian (©Shawn Fink)
Held on the third weekend in March, “Super Sunday” draws Indian tribes from across the city, along with hundreds of spectators, to A.L. Davis Park. (©Shawn Fink)

The roots of the Mardi Gras Indians, like much of the history of New Orleans, can be traced to the city’s brutal beginnings. In 1718 Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville directed the establishment of the city on land occupied by the Chitimacha, whom the French had been waging war against for more than a decade. The establishment of the city signaled the defeat of the Chitimacha, as the French government forcibly resettled them upriver in St. Mary Parish, where their tribal land is now found. Some who refused to leave their homeland remained, living in small settlements in the swamps and bayous. A few native people, mostly women, stayed on in the new colony, intermarrying with newly arrived Europeans.

The removal of the indigenous population made room for an influx of rough-and-tumble newcomers—merchants, military men, criminals—searching for fortune and adventure at what was the edge of the European world. And, as the city’s port grew to be one of the most important in the Western Hemisphere, there was also an influx of West African slaves. Unlike their counterparts in Anglo America, enslaved Africans and Native Americans in French colonies like Louisiana were able to maintain some aspects of their own rich cultural heritage, passing down pieces of their home languages, religions and music to their children. The cultural stew was also constantly refreshed by the arrival of more African-born people, whose knowledge helped to preserve African traditions in the New World.

Mardi Gras Indians (©Shawn Fink)
Indians’ brilliantly hued outfits can take a full year to construct. (©Shawn Fink)

At that early time, when New Orleans was equal parts Wild West and laissez le bon temps rouler, African traditions weren’t only maintained inside the city itself, where people of color, enslaved and free, gathered at Congo Square each week to meet, mingle, dance and sell their wares; they were also sustained in the mosquito-infested swamps to which slaves escaped. There, some escaped Africans joined with bands of Chitimacha, Choctaw and Houma rebels.

Many people believe that it was in those swamps and through the mixing of enslaved African men and indigenous women—in those unions of oppressed peoples—that the Mardi Gras Indians were born, citing as evidence comparable traditions (such as junkanoo parades) throughout the Caribbean, where West African and native worlds merged. Others trace the Indians to the 1885 Carnival season, when a group of Plains Indians from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show joined a Mardi Gras parade. No one is certain.

What is certain is that, from the late 1800s through the 20th century, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition not only survived, it flourished. In fact, the Indians have been a central ingredient in the gumbo that is New Orleans culture. Their contributions to that gumbo are perhaps most evident in the city’s music.

In 1938 jazz great and New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton shared his memories of seeing the Indians as a boy with folklorist Alan Lomax: “They would be dancing. They’d form a ring and one would get in the center and he’d start his kind of a Indian dance. And they would say, ‘T’ouwais bas q’ouwais... Hou tendais...” The Mardi Gras Indian language Morton recounted is, like the Indians themselves, of uncertain origins. Historians and linguists have attributed them to Creole and French as well as Native American and African languages.

Mardi Gras Indians (©Shawn Fink)
Taking to the streets on Super Sunday. (©Shawn Fink)

Regardless of their etymological roots, Indian phrases have found their way into many Mardi Gras anthems, songs like The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko” and The Meters’ “Hey Pocky-Way.” “Jock-a-mo,” another Mardi Gras Indian phrase, is not only a famous Sugar Boy Crawford song, it’s also the name of a popular beer by Louisiana’s own Abita Brewing Company. An Indian, surrounded by electric-blue feathers, appears on the label.

But the history of the Mardi Gras Indians hasn’t been all song, dance and costume. It is also a history of violence. Especially during the first half of the 20th century, “masking” was a time to settle grudges, and the beautiful, hand-beaded costumes were often stained with blood. Even after Allison “Tootie” Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas and, later, the Chief of Chiefs who represented all of the tribes, pushed to move from knife and gun battles to contests of pageantry and showmanship—“fighting with the needle and thread”—the association of Mardi Gras Indians with violence remained for many New Orleanians. Members of the black middle class, like my father, avoided the Indians.

Mardi Gras Indian (©Shawn Fink)
A member of the 7th Ward’s Hard Head Hunters Indian tribe. (©Shawn Fink)

My father wasn’t only averting violence committed by the Indians themselves; he was also avoiding violence committed against the Indians by city officials and the New Orleans Police Department. Throughout the 20th century, the NOPD cracked down on Indians—and cracked skulls—regularly, including the St. Joseph’s Day parade in 2005, when officers blocked the streets through which the Indians marched. Big Chief Montana suffered a fatal heart attack months later as he addressed New Orleans’ City Council, imploring them to hold the NOPD accountable for targeting Indians.

Montana’s work (and his death) marked a change in how many locals viewed the Mardi Gras Indians. Hurricane Katrina, which struck just under two months later, cemented that change. The Indians became a rallying point for all New Orleanians, a symbol of our unique heritage and history as well as of our ability to survive in the face of abuse at the hands of nature and society.

Just as, more than two centuries earlier, these bands of masked men had preserved African and Native American traditions by mixing and morphing the, Indians became, after the storm, the carriers of New Orleans' culture and heart.

Mardi Gras Indian (©Shawn Fink)
Elaborate bead and feather work are hallmarks of Indian suits. (©Shawn Fink)

The renewed affection for and connection with Mardi Gras Indians is seen not only in the larger, more diverse crowds at post-Katrina parades and events or the importance of Indians in the storylines and graphics associated with HBO’s “Treme.” It’s also evident in the growth of two museums, the Backstreet Cultural Museum and the House of Dance and Feathers. Though both predate the storm, they have experienced exponential growth and greatly increased interest in the years since Katrina. The Backstreet Museum has appeared in numerous publications, including “National Geographic”; the House of Dance and Feathers inspired a namesake book released in 2009.

In contemporary New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are prized not only by the communities that have birthed them, but by the population at large, especially those displaced by Katrina who haven’t been able to return to the city. As one self-described “NOLA dawlin’,” who since the storm has bounced between Louisiana, Minnesota and Georgia, explains, she never understood the importance of the Indians as a child. “I thought the colors were so pretty,” she recalls. “I didn’t really get it, though. I was kinda scared and intrigued. Now I do [feel personally connected], because I’m away.” Now the Indians are part of her understanding of “home.”

Mardi Gras Indians (©Shawn Fink)
The next generation of Mardi Gras Indians. (©Shawn Fink)

Another New Orleanian, whose 7th Ward neighborhood is home of the Creole Hard Headers tribe, summed it up this way: “When they say they won’t bow down, they not just talking about them, you know? They talking about all of us. Hurricane. Flood. Oil spill. Poverty. Whatever the world bring, we don’t care. We stay. We won’t bow down.”