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What are the Mardi Gras Indians, how many are there and what is their history? 

Blake Pontchartrain: the N.O. It All

click to enlarge A Mardi Gras Indian shows off his hand-sewn suit.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

A Mardi Gras Indian shows off his hand-sewn suit.

Hey Blake,

What are the Mardi Gras Indians, how many are there and what is their history?

Dear Reader,

  The Mardi Gras Indians are a fascinating subculture of New Orleans. They are hierarchical, territorial tribes in African-American communities and give themselves names like Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West and Fi Yi Yi. The tribes celebrate Mardi Gras with traditions that date back to the 1800s, when Mardi Gras krewes excluded blacks. Shut out by segregation, African-Americans began to celebrate in their own neighborhoods.

  The origins of Mardi Gras Indians have been passed down orally through generations. One common belief is that local Native American tribes sheltered runaway slaves, and the two cultures merged. Some Mardi Gras Indians claim direct Native American ancestry. Other people believe the intermingling of Native Americans with Creoles, slaves and free people of color in Congo Square brought about the merge. There are also accounts of blacks participating in the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows that traveled through major cities in the late 1800s and being influenced by the costumes. Later, Jim Crow laws barred the Mardi Gras Indian tribes from parading with mainstream Carnival krewes on Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue, so they stayed within their neighborhoods and became solidified.

  As the Indians marched in the street, they would encounter other tribes competing for territory. In the early years, the confrontations could get tense and violent, but those practices changed, due largely to the leadership of Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. Montana died in 2005 while addressing the City Council about allegations of police harassment of Indians.

  Today tribes meet each other and compete through performance and art to see who has the prettiest costumes. The Indians spend countless hours and thousands of dollars creating elaborate costumes and headdresses that include intricate hand-sewn designs in beads, sequins, stones and feathers. The street performances include dancing and singing songs that include typical West African percussions and call-and-response. Songs like "Two Way, Pocky Way" came from the Mardi Gras Indians and have had significant influences on local music and musicians, including The Neville Brothers and The Meters.

  There are 30 to 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes of various sizes in New Orleans. Each tribe has a "big chief" and one or two (second and third) other chiefs. The big chief must know how to design and sew a fabulous costume, sing, dance and lead his tribe. Each chief has a queen. A "trail chief" protects the big chief from the rear flank and a "spy boy" walks ahead of the tribe and searches for rival tribes. If he finds a rival tribe on the streets, the spy boy relays the information to the "flag boy," who informs the tribe. A tribe member called a "wild man" then clears a path for his big chief and makes room for chiefs of the two tribes to begin their performances.

  Mardi Gras Indians traditionally parade on Fat Tuesday and "Super Sunday," the Sunday closest to St. Joseph's Day. Some tribes now also parade on "Big Sunday," the weekend in April between the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

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