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Traditions of New Orleans in recovery mode, along with city

King cakes, double-decker floats, and “Throw me somethin’, mister!” are all typical aspects of Carnival season in Louisiana, culminating on Mardi Gras day. However, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the city that holds the most famous Mardi Gras celebration in the United States, very little remains typical. One endangered tradition is that of the ornately costumed African American Mardi Gras Indians. Yet, with the help of an LSU professor and her husband, Mardi Gras Indians are a Louisiana institution that no natural disaster will succeed in washing away.

For more than a decade, Louisiana State University Associate Professor of Geography & Anthropology Joyce Marie Jackson has studied the unique folk ritual of the African- and Caribbean-inspired Mardi Gras Indians. Her husband, Baton Rouge-based photographer J. Nash Porter, has chronicled them in his work for many years as well. Now, due to a large percentage of Mardi Gras Indians being displaced by what locals refer to as “the storm,” the tradition indigenous to New Orleans is fighting for survival.

Birds of a Feather…

The origins of Mardi Gras Indians seem to date back to the mid-19th century. Many believe that the concept began due to a perceived kinship between African Americans and Native Americans as being mutually excluded by society.

Before Katrina, nearly 40 tribes in New Orleans practiced the legacy of donning elaborate, feathered costumes and marching throughout the city's Uptown, Downtown, and other neighborhoods during Mardi Gras and other special days of the year. In 2006, about half of the tribes were on hand and not all of them "suited up," according to Joyce Jackson. With Mardi Gras 2007 on the horizon, Jackson is unsure about the number of tribes marching in parades, but holds out hope for a much bigger turnout than in 2006.

“I’ve talked to many of the Indians that are still misplaced from the hurricane and are not sure if they will be able to make the trip in,” said Jackson. “But hope is a very important aspect in their lives, and there is a camaraderie and friendship that makes them want to attend to support each other.”

A “Capital” Exhibit

Hope was also a factor in last year’s exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute's Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., which focuses on African American history and culture. “The New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indians: Exploring a Community Tradition from an Insider's View” was scheduled to run from April to August of 2006, but according to Jackson, public interest extended the run until October.

The impetus of the exhibit was based on J. Nash Porter's many color images chronicling the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Jackson wrote the narrative script for the exhibit, which was based on her years of ethnographic and historical research on the tradition.

Identity Crisis

According to Jackson, a smaller version of the exhibit is scheduled to run until March 30 at the Louisiana State Archives building in Baton Rouge. Although primarily about the traditions of Mardi Gras and the men that create and wear the elaborate costumes during parades, those are only aspects of what the exhibit represents.

“The exhibit is also about families, intergenerational traditions, and community,” said Jackson. “Many of the men involved are blue collar workers in their day-to-day lives, but as ‘Big Chief’ or ‘Wild Man’ they become larger than life personalities.”

That loss of identity among Mardi Gras Indians might also be viewed as a microcosm of the city of New Orleans itself. A city once steeped in many time-honored traditions, such as Mardi Gras, is slowly trying to regain its footing as a thriving community and tourist destination.

Both Jackson and Porter have said that, in light of the many negative images of New Orleans represented in the media over the last 18 months, they hope their exhibit has given and will continue to give visitors a more positive impression of New Orleans’ people and culture.

“Dressing as Mardi Gras Indians gave these men a sense of pride that they may not have had otherwise,” said Jackson. “I hope as many of them as possible come back to New Orleans this Mardi Gras and that this tradition can continue.”

In the post-Katrina world, for both proud gentlemen and an entire city struggling to maintain their identities, long-standing traditions are crucial to what have become the “Three R’s” of New Orleans: recovery, re-growth, and rebirth.

An interesting Side Note:

Aside from Mardi Gras day, the most significant day for the Mardi Gras Indians is St. Joseph's Day, March 19th. Around sundown on this day, the Mardi Gras Indians once again dress in their feathers and suits and take to
the streets to meet other “gangs.” Also, the Mardi Gras Indian Council and Tambourine and Fan organization put on an annual “Super Sunday” parade on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day.

Nobody is completely certain when the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians “masking” on St. Joseph's night began. However, there have been reports of Indians on St. Joseph's night dating back to before World War I. The custom seems to have come about simply because it was a good opportunity. With all of the Catholic Italians celebrating this holiday in the streets, the Indians were able to blend in and celebrate as well.

Before 1969, the Indians celebrated by coming out at night to meet and greet other “gangs.” In 1969, the first parade was created and rolled through town at night. In 1970, it was switched to a day parade on Sunday afternoon, and has continued like that to this day. The parade usually begins around noon at Bayou St. John and Orleans Avenue. However, it has no exact route.

The daytime parades make the Indians accessible to the general public and allow visitors and locals alike to admire their amazing costumes, crowns, and accessories. If time permits, make it a point to take part in this very unique New Orleans tradition.

~ from the Web site Mardi Gras New Orleans

Todd Miller | Michelle Spielman | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2007

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