Picture it. March 19th in New Orleans–late in the evening. A gang of local men led by a Big Chief approach another gang of local men led by its own Big Chief. They are chanting, dancing, donning heavy, elaborate costumes of sequins, beads and feathers, and they mock-battle in the street before crowds of onlookers.
Neither Big Chief will bow down. Neither will be outdone by his opponent. One shouts, “I’m the prettiest big chief!” The response from the other big chief: “I’m the prettiest big chief!”
They are the Mardi Gras Indians, though they don’t only appear on Mardi Gras, and they’re not really Indians.
The First to “Mask”
African Americans, who were not invited to Mardi Gras celebrations, created their own Carnival rituals. Mardi Gras Indians began appearing in the late 19th century; the first group was the Creole Wild West from the Seventh Ward.
The “Indians” honored Native Americans–who helped hide runaway slaves from bounty hunters and slave masters–by creating costumes and dressing up as American Indians. They were paying homage by “masking Indian” or “playing Indian,” and the tradition was a manifestation of the bond between American Indians and African Americans.
Or, at least, that’s how one version of the story goes.
Another theory is that the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” shows that traveled through New Orleans in the late 19th century inspired African Americans to dress as Indians.
No one knows for sure, and the tradition’s real connection to American Indians is arguable.
But, what is certain is that the “tribes” or “gangs” of Mardi Gras Indians began appearing in the late 1800s. Their folk art tradition included music, dance and hand-sewn costumes and masks. They were self-taught and dedicated to their craft. The neighborhood-based tribes followed a hierarchy, and the tradition was handed down to younger generations with extensive attention to detail.
While Mardi Gras Indians certainly pay homage to American Indians, the rituals and garb are noticeably West African and Afro-Caribbean. From the beadwork, to the colors, the masks and call and answer nature of the chants, the Mardi Gras Indians call forth traditions that pre-date African Americans’ arrival in the United States.
By the early 20th century, the Mardi Gras Indians’ traditions were established, but they remained marginal figures in Mardi Gras celebrations. They met in the mostly Black neighborhoods of New Orleans; away from the parade routes and tourist stops.
And the tribe members themselves were often on the margins of New Orleans society. They were the poor and working-class, the service workers and carpenters. Their gatherings were secret, and sometimes their battles were violent.
By mid-century, the gangs sometimes used their battles as a way to settle scores with their rivals. Knife-fights among the tribes were not unheard of.
“The History of the Creole Wild West” (The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities in conjunction with The Mardi Gras Indians Council)
Wild Man, Spy Boy and the Big Chief
There are dozens of Mardi Gras Indian “tribes” or “gangs,” with names like Golden Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Fi-Yi-Yi, Yellow Pocahontas and Guardians of the Flame.
(Click here for an expanded list of Mardi Gras Indian tribes)
Each tribe includes: a Spy Boy, who locates a rival gang and shares that intelligence with his gang; a Flag Boy, who carries the tribe’s flag; a Wild Man, who clears a path through the crowd for the Big Chief. And, of course, there is the Big Chief.
The Big Chief is the leader of the Indian tribe and is often the oldest member, with the greatest sewing skill (to make the handcrafted costumes) and the best singing talent (to chant the Mardi Gras Indian songs).
While there have been a number of famous Big Chiefs, like Donald Harrison, Sr. (Guardians of the Flame), Emile “Bo” Dollis (Wild Magnolias) and Monk Boudreaux (Golden Eagles), one of the most notable chiefs–called the Chief of Chiefs–was Allison “Tootie” Montana, who is credited with transforming the Mardi Gras Indian tradition from a violent to a nonviolent one.
“I’m the Prettiest”
Montana encouraged Mardi Gras Indians to put down their knives and weapons and to “battle” with the skill and craftsmanship of their costumes. Instead of stabbing their enemies, the Mardi Gras Indians would compete to be the “prettiest” Big Chief.
Montana himself elevated the craft with his spectacular three-dimensional designs and his remarkable musical talents.
In 1987, Montana received a fellowship as a Master Traditional Artist from the Folk Art Program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Black Men Of Labor dirge for Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana”()
“Sew, Sew, Sew”
No Big Chief wears the same suit twice. If it’s Mardi Gras, the Big Chief has a new suit. And that is no small feat. The costumes are so elaborate that it takes the entire year between Mardi Gras celebrations to create a new one.
The suit is completely hand-sewn–typically by the Big Chief himself, with help from his family and neighbors–and materials can cost thousands of dollars. The finished product is brightly colored and will typically include rhinestones, sequins, jewels, beads, satin, velvet, ostrich plumes and feathers, sometimes depicting a lion, elephant, ram, snake or some other animal. The look is completed with a chest-piece, apron, a (sometimes massive) headdress or “crown” and a mask.
A September 1964 photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Member of the Wild Red Flame Mardi Gras Indians (Photo: Getty Images)
When the Big Chief steps out in his new suit, he can be carrying anywhere from 80 to 300 pounds on his body, which he will wear for several hours while dancing and singing.
“He Won’t Bow Down”
Like all parts of Mardi Gras Indian tradition, the music is a gumbo–a mix of jazz, blues, African drums and West African call and response–that has influenced and been influenced by the New Orleans sound.
Many of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants, like “Meet De Boys on De Battlefront,” “My Big Chief Got a Golden Crown” and “Handa Wanda,” have been recorded by Mardi Gras Indians themselves.
Other songs, like “Hey Pocky Way”–with lyrics that include, “Well, the prettiest thing that you ever did see, is a Mardi Gras Indian, down in New Orleans. They sewed all night, and they sewed all day. If you ain’t ready, better get out da way”–have been adapted by other mainstream musical groups (Listen to “Hey Pocky Way” by The Meters).
The lyrics often discuss the specifics of the craft, like in the song “Sew, Sew, Sew,” or the valiant nature of the Big Chief, like the lyrics “He won’t bow down, down on the ground. Oh, how I love to hear him call Indian Red,” in the Mardi Gras Indian anthem “Indian Red.”
(Click the links below to listen to “Indian Red” and a sample of other Mardi Gras Indian songs.)
“Indian Red” by Mardi Gras Indians (youtube.com)
“Handa Wanda” by Wild Magnolias (youtube.com)
“In the Morning (Jockomo)” by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & The Golden Eagles (youtube.com)
“Don’t Deny My Name. I Got My Gang.”
The Mardi Gras Indians’ Big Chiefs debut their new suits on Mardi Gras, but they can also be seen on a special parade day called Super Sunday and on St. Joseph’s Night, when they “battle” in the streets. Catholics will know that March 19 is the feast of Saint Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary.
“St. Joseph’s Night, by Dan Baum” (Newyorker.com)
Mardi Gras Indians do not have pre-set parade routes and usually don’t obtain a permit to assemble. Anyone who wants to see the Mardi Gras Indians would do best to ask the locals for details.
And, if it’s a battle, it will take place late at night. With the Spy Boy out front, the Flag Boy next in line, the Wild Man just ahead of the Big Chief and a (sometimes very large) group of plainclothes parade revelers following the Big Chief (second line), the tribes travel through the streets. Women (Big Queens) and children even join in the event.
Luckily, today, when the tribes meet, they only battle for “pretty.” Oh, and how pretty they are.