(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians are African American and Afro Creole bands of mostly working-class men who use the European Carnival day or “Fat Tuesday” to express cultural continuity within black communities across the cityscape. At least two dozen Mardi Gras Indians groups of 15-20 members present themselves annually as hierarchical bands of warriors who “Won’t bow down” to others or to the larger post-colonial society of New Orleans. With names like “Creole Wild West,” “Yellow Pocahontas” and “Wild Magnolias,” the Indian men and families work for months to sew elaborately-colored  bead and feather “suits” that are shared traditions of creativity drawn from images of Plains Indians hunting, making war, riding horses or other pursuits.   Many of those who “mask Indian” also design and sew highly individual works that may come to them in dreams.  In spite of the term, very few Mardi Gras Indians actually wear masks, though many paint their faces and use long hair, braided wigs.

Each tribe is divided into a hierarchy with a “big chief” at the top, and various supporting second chiefs, queens, and princesses. Special roles are taken by a spyboy who keeps a lookout for other “gangs” of Indians and a wildman who may clear a path in the crowded street between tribes so that the chiefs may meet to face-off  in ritual dances and chants that demonstrate power and demand respect. Historically this could lead to violence, but in recent decades, under the leadership of the late chief Allison ‘Tootie’ Montana, the chiefs and tribal members have moved toward competing with their costumes, song and dance to be “the prettiest.”

A chief is expected to be a good singer capable of improvising songs over a dense rhythm section of bass drums, tambourines and various bottles, sticks and bells. The words may comment on his prowess and the day’s activities with the full tribe and followers in  backing chorus.  One song, “Sew, Sew, Sew,” describes the work of the men preparing costumes; another, “My Big Chief Got a Golden Crown,” offers praise to the leader; “Indian Red”  is a hymn-like song of prayer to the Native spirits assembled in a clubhouse or home at the start of an Indian practice or parade.   Words of some songs and street commands  like “J’a q’ mo fille na-nay” or “Tu way pas qui-way” show of mix of French Creole and secret group language that defies direct translation.

The origins of the black Indians of New Orleans are contested. Many Mardi Gras tribal members point to black-Indian relationships in the French, Spanish and later American colonial periods wherein Native Americans assisted in the escape of slaves and establishment of maroon communities on the margins of New Orleans and nearby plantations.  Some Mardi Gras Indians assert Native American ancestry.  Others insist on the primacy of  West African and Afro-Caribbean sources in dance, song style, rhythms and over all comportment. The presence of local Native American tribes, mingling with enslaved, free people of color and French and Spanish locals  attending dances and festivals during the 18th and 19th century in  Congo Square near today’s French Quarter is also described as a source of today’s black Mardi Gras Indians.  With their fanciful names and stylized costumes, the arrival of Wild West shows in the city in the 1880s is also given credit as a source of visual representation and rhetorical style.

The jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax in1938 at the Library of Congress, describes the black Indians in his memories of New Orleans in the 1920s . By the 1950s and 60s Indian songs became local and national R & B and soul hits with Sugar Boy Crawford’s  “Jock-A-Mo” (1954) and later the Dixie Cups’ “Iko-Iko” (1965).  A breakout pop LP was done by Wild Tchoupitoulas and their kinfolk the Neville Brothers working with producer Allen Toussaint in 1976.

The Mardi Gras Indians who walk and dance in the streets of New Orleans have often received less attention than Zulu, the famed African American parody-filled float parade, or elite white Uptown krewes like Rex and Proteus with their originally  mule drawn wagons of elaborate papier-maché theme floats. However, the black Indians have also come to signify African roots and communal power in a city where class disparities based on race have been profound.  Famed Indian chiefs like Monk Boudreaux, Bo Dollis and the late Donald Harrison Sr. became better known in annual New Orleans Jazz Festival appearances, sound recordings and international touring. In the immediate  post-Katrina flood period  (2005), Mardi Gras Indians famously returned early to their ritual and festival ways and were viewed as emblematic of the will of black New Orleanians to return to and rebuild their distressed city in articles from the local Times-Picayune newspaper to the New York Times. At today’s Carnival in New Orleans the Mardi Gras Indians continue their pomp and pride-filled march through the 21st Century.

Nick Spitzer is a professor of anthropology at Tulane University in New Orleans and is the producer of public radio’s American Routes.

To hear a short audio feature on Mardi Gras Indians, click here.