We New Orleanians believe that, with everything, there should be “lagniappe,” that little something extra. Just a little something extra out of the kitchen at a restaurant, or perhaps a few donut holes to go with the dozen you just picked up on Saturday morning. Or just that one more encore at the end of a brass band’s set in a local club.
A little something extra is important when it comes to Mardi Gras as well. The strict Catholic tradition is that the Carnival season comes to an end at midnight on Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, and everyone should be serious about preparing for Easter. Yeah, about that…we want our lagniappe. The Irish get theirs on March 17, the feast of St. Patrick. The Italians get theirs two days later, on the feast of St. Joseph. And the Mardi Gras Indians get theirs on “Super Sunday.” It would be such an injustice if the tribes only got to show off their pretty suits just one day a year, so they come out one more time on the Sunday that is closest to St. Joseph’s Day.
The connection between African-Americans and Native Americans in Louisiana goes back to the arrival of African slaves in the 1740s-1750s. French and Spanish colonists had already subjugated the native tribes around New Orleans. Since African slaves were overwhelmingly male, the Europeans allowed the Africans to mingle and marry native women. It didn’t take more than a generation or two before native music and traditions blended with African and Caribbean music and dances in Congo Square. Native Americans played an important role in hiding runaway slaves, often allowing the Africans to become part of their tribes.
The tradition of African-American men “masking Indian” for Carnival likely goes back to before the Civil War, but it’s clearly documented in the 1880s. After the Civil War, the United States continued to expand westward, its Army battling and dominating the native tribes it encountered along the way. Many of the “Colored Troops” of the Union Army stayed on at this time, becoming the “Buffalo Soldiers” who protected the settlers. As their terms of Army service ended, these cavalry soldiers joined traveling “Wild West” shows. These shows demonstrated the horsemanship the soldiers regularly employed when fighting natives in the western territories. Several of the shows had black “cowboys” and “cowhands.” One of those traveling companies, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, spent the winter of 1884-1885 in New Orleans. On Mardi Gras, 1885, over 50 of the “Indians” of the show company took to the streets in the garb of the plains tribes. What an inspiration to the black men of New Orleans that must have been. Many had heard stories from their mothers about how their mothers and grandmothers had “Indian” roots. Seeing those buckskin outfits and feathered headdresses no doubt re-kindled those memories, as they resolved to honor their Native American heritage.
The costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians are elaborate affairs — hundreds of feathers, along with beading, sequins, and fine fabrics. The most expensive costumes are created and worn by the “big chiefs,” the leaders of the individual gangs. The tribe’s banner is carried by the “flag boy.” The members of the tribe, the “braves,” number from a handful to several dozen. Some of their costumes rival that of the Big Chief. As the tribe makes its way from their starting point (usually the house of a member, or perhaps a local bar or tavern), the Big Chief sends out the “Spy Boy,” to run a few blocks ahead of the main group. If the Spy Boy encounters another tribe, he runs back to the Big Chief, who then decides if he wants to confront the other tribe.
The member closest to the Big Chief is often the Wild Man. The Wild Man’s job is to keep people back from the Big Chief’s costume. The Wild Man carries a pair of bull horns or some other type of staff and runs around erratically. He’s unpredictable, so spectators have to keep back, lest they get poked with the horns.
All this takes place on Mardi Gras Day, then once again on Super Sunday. On both days, the tribes take to the streets, often encountering each other as they leave their neighborhood, finally making the decision to “head uptown” or “head downtown” by crossing Canal Street. In earlier generations, this was a gang-turf sort of issue that could lead to fighting. Nowadays, it leads to dancing and debate about who is “prettiest.”
On Mardi Gras, the tribes take to the streets early, because time is limited; Ash Wednesday approaches. On Super Sunday, the tradition is for the tribes to “take that walk” at night. Since the 1970s, the tribes start earlier in the day, to show off and allow their costumes to be photographed. The downtown tribes gather at Bayou St. John, where the Tamborine and Fan Club organizes a parade. The Uptown tribal council gathers its Indians at A.L. Davis Park, at Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, for a parade on that side of Canal Street. Very recently (since the 1990s), the Indians also come out on the Sunday between French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest as well.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, will be available at bookstores and online on April 7th. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.