“Masking” is one of the oldest Mardi Gras traditions, but it isn’t one of the most popular. Many people have never seen a real “Mardi Gras Indian” while visiting New Orleans during parade season. This century-old act of dressing as Native Americans pays homage to the “Indians” who created a safe haven in the bayous for runaway slaves. Today, certain African Americans in New Orleans will “mask” to honor the Native Americans who helped their forefathers escape slavery. Earlier days of “masking” became violent turf wars. Now it’s all about who has the prettiest suit.
Mardi Gras Indians will spend every day until Mardi Gras hand-sewing sequins, beads, feathers, and anything else beautiful to their suits and headdresses in preparation for Mardi Gras day. These suits are wearable works of art, and each year a new suit is made. Some tell stories of slavery or honor the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. All are beautiful. Big Chief Alfred Doucette created a hand-beaded suit depicting the slave trade, slavery in the South, and the KKK. It’s said that the late Big Chief Tootie Montana created a headdress that weighed over 170 pounds! In his lifetime, he created over 52 suits.
It can cost thousands of dollars to create a Mardi Gras suit. When any old materials could be used, there were lots of Indians masking, but now it’s stiff competition and the existing tribes have put in the time and effort year after year. They should be respected as designers and creators of beautiful pieces. We don’t think twice to drool over Marc Jacobs or DVF’s latest runway show. These men put on an interactive runway show every Mardi Gras, and they don’t have giant teams of people doing all of their work. Even the moccasins are hand-beaded and adorned with bells so you can hear the Indians coming.
Each tribe consists of:
The Big Chief: the leader of the tribe and the one with the prettiest suit and most street cred.
The Flag Boy: hangs out on the corner and acts as a lookout. If he sees another tribe or police. he signals to the Big Chief; then the Big Chief decides which direction to take his tribe.
The Wild Man: the protector of the Big Chief. He keeps people from getting too close. He is usually very loud and boisterous.
During evacuation for Hurricane Katrina, Big Chief Alfred Doucette loaded his car with three of his completed Mardi Gras Indian suits. He was approached by three strangers needing a ride out of New Orleans. In order to make room for the passengers, he left his suits behind. Mardi Gras Indians are honorable people. They honor their ancestors and they don’t forget those who have helped them. Above all, they deserve honor and respect for their contributions to American culture – and for bringing us the prettiest, prettiest creations.
Whatever you do…
Check out the Mardi Gras Indians documentary ‘Bury the Hatchet’ featuring Big Chiefs Alfred Doucette, Victor Harris, and Monk Boudreaux.
Listen to Dr. John’s version of “My Indian Red” and shake your feathers.
Happy Mardi Gras!