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NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans is a strange place with many historical threads coloring its canvas of culture. From Voodoo to jazz, every aspect of New Orleans heritage stems from a convoluted history of colonialism, slavery, pirates, and Creoles. I've spent most of my life in New Orleans and I have to admit, with much shame, that many of the cultural pulses that beat at the heart of the city's heritage have earned no more than a casual glance from me.
My apathy was a big mistake because what I discovered on one afternoon in March, called "Super Sunday", was the fascinating and almost surreal world of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Most of what I recall of this tradition is based from National Geographic magazines and other publications. Personally, I never saw the Indians first hand. At least not until my roommate and I walked to the shores of Bayou St. John and witnessed the Indians coming out to celebrate "Super Sunday".
Now I have to confess that I had never heard of "Super Sunday". I am familiar with Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and other like events. But on this typically New Orleans day (hot and humid for those who not familiar with the weather here), I walked into a wonder world of tribal chieftains, queens, and indigenous brass music. Almost by instinct I took out my camera and readied myself for my first photo-op.
While wandering through the assembly grounds populated with meandering locals and tourists, I promised myself not to miss this event ever again. Because as I heard the music playing, the drums thumping, and the Indians chanting I was mesmerized at the intricacy of the costumes and the mysticism behind this native culture of New Orleans. I realized that this tradition is a special piece of the historical jigsaw puzzle that defines this city's past. As traditions go, this one's uniquely New Orleans.
While standing around, I couldn't help but think about the history behind the Mardi Gras Indian. When did this start and why? I was compelled to do some research and what I found was remarkable.
The Mardi Gras Indians go back a hundred or so years. Some historians peg the appearance of the first Indian tribes back to the late 1880's and others even as far back as the early 1700ås. At that time, Mardi Gras, like almost everything else, was primarily for whites. The Carnival Krewes were comprised exclusively of white men who were members of the upper echelon of the social elite. As a result, the remaining communities were left out of the cityås festivities during Mardi Gras.
So the local black communities, to celebrate Carnival in their own way, started to gather on the streets and dance to Afro-rhythmic music and songs. Clubs were formed in the different urban neighborhoods of the city. Most would take to the streets and parade around in feathered headdresses, beads, and decorated costumes. Others would wander around in search of rival tribes to settle old scores. As a result, Mardi Gras was usually marked with violence. However, as these costumes became more elaborate, the violence subsided.
As a consequence, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians evolved into a ritualistic display of cultural pride and ceremony. A new heritage was manufactured by a people who had all their badges of culture stripped away from them by slavery.
However the origins of the Indians don't necessarily start in the 1880's. Before the emancipation of slaves, many slaves escaped and sought refuge in the nearby Indian villages that dotted the surrounding areas of New Orleans.
Nations like the Choctaw and the Coshatta would welcome the escapees into their tribes. As slaves and Native Americans inter-married and fought side-by-side against the white colonials, a strong bond developed. So with respect for a debt of gratitude, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition became a symbolic "thank you" to the Native Americans who once sheltered them.
Super Sunday Photography by Carlos Salazar
There are many cultural inputs that gave sustenance to the Indian tradition. As Mardi Gras evolved, more cultures would add to the cultural recipe of the Mardi Gras Indians. Immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean nations would arrive at the port of New Orleans bringing with them Afro-Caribbean music and folk art. As they settled into the black communities of New Orleans, these new arrivals influenced the tradition.
While Mardi Gras became a nova of pre-Lenten celebrations, the Mardi Gras Indians tradition started to change as it incorporated many of the Caribbean traditions into its dances, costumes, and music. As more clubs were formed, the Indians started to make their mark on the cultural face of New Orleans.
The Indians can be seen strutting around the city during Mardi Gras, "Super Sunday", or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. There are around thirty-four clubs, or tribes, existing today. (For a list of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes go to http://www.mardigrasdigest.com/Sec_mgind/indian_mainpg.htm.)
Each tribe is comprised of at least one "Big Chief", "Big Queen", "Scout Boy", "Flag Boy", and "Medicine Man". All members of the tribe play a role during a march. As an example, while a tribe takes its route through their own neighborhood, a scout will run a few blocks ahead. When another tribe is spotted, the scout sends word back to the "Big Chief". At this point, the entire tribe moves to encounter the rival tribesmen.
With careful respect, each tribe will try to show off their elaborate suites and throw around compliments, jeers, and some trash talk. At some point during the ritual, the "Big Chiefs" will come face to face and engage each other through tribal dances and rituals while pounding the ground with a elaborately decorated staffs.
Each chief wears a costume that can weigh as much as 150 pounds or more. The cost for each costume can reach as much as five thousand dollars. Some have estimated, when calculating man-hours, these suits can be worth as much as twenty-five to fifty thousand dollars.
An entire year is used to assemble one costume. Despite the tremendous effort to built one of these suites, tradition dictates that each costume be disassembled and redesigned for the following year.
No two costumes are ever allowed to be alike. Enshrined in massive mosaics of rhinestones and swatches of velvet and colorful feathers, these costumes are just plain amazing.
New Orleans shares the cultural pie of Carnival with Mobile, Galveston, and an assortment of other small towns in Louisiana. Many of the celebrations have taken up their own identities. Galveston charges five dollars to get to the festivities. Pretty lame. Mobile, well I don't know much about Mobile. There isn't much media attention paid to Carnival in Mobile. Perhaps there is a reason?
But despite Mardi Gras becoming a shared commodity of frivolity and debauchery, the Mardi Gras Indians are exclusively made from the essence of New Orleans heritage. On "Super Sunday", I witnessed this arcane society of chieftains and queens doused in colorful beads, masks, and costumes. New Orleans is the only place in the world where these Indians roam. In addition, these Indians are a reminder of how an enslaved people can overpower their oppressors not through violent revolution but rather with a cultural one. Slavery is gone but the Indians still remain. If you are ever in New Orleans, check out the Mardi Gras Indians. Leave the French Quarter and depart from the tourist traps that give only what the travel brochures offer. Venture out to where the Indians roam and witness a true piece of Americana.
For more information on the Mardi Gras Indians click to these web pages.
CARLOS SALAZAR is a freelance photographer who currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. He is studying Journalism at the University of New Orleans. This is his first contribution to The World's Magazine.
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