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St. Joseph's Night in New Orleans:
Out After Dark with the Wild Indians

By John Sinclair

Larry Bannock by Michael P. Smith The legendary Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans can be seen in all their splendor on Fat Tuesday, the one day of the year they're allowed to run wild in the streets from dawn to dark. But there's another Crescent City holiday, celebrated every March 19th, that brings the Indians out into the neighborhood streets in full costume once again, and in some ways it's even more magical -- because it takes place in the dark of night.

St. Joseph's Day, the day the swallows come back to Capistrano, is a well-established and extremely colorful New Orleans celebration observed by the city's Italian-American community to the delight of all. Its crowning glory is the plethora of St. Joseph's Day altars constructed in the homes and churches of the faithful to give thanks to the father of Jesus Christ for answering their prayers and special requests during years past.

The St. Joseph's Day altars feature rows and rows of lovingly prepared foods, fruits and desserts in joyous, artful arrangements fashioned by the celebrants to honor and exalt their patron saint while offering divine sustenance to their hungry fellow citizens who will not go unfed on this happy day. People open their homes to one and all who wish to share the magnificence of their St. Joseph's Day creations, and certain churches annually host gigantic displays of foodstuffs spread over table after table after table and piled incredibly high and vast across the altar itself.

Why the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras have chosen St. Joseph's Night for their own may remain a mystery to this writer, but the people in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the Indians hold sway are well versed in the ritual and rush forward eagerly to join in the fun, forming the energetic "second line" that envelops, supports and propels the Wild Indian gangs to ever greater exploits of visual art, public song, and communal street dancing.

On St. Joseph's Night the Wild Indians and their followers wield flashlights against the darkness, illuminating their elaborate creations in beadwork, feathers and plumes inspired by the ceremonial suits and headdresses of the Plains Indians of the 19th century. They take to the middle of the street like it's Mardi Gras Day, dancing out into the night in search of rival Indian gangs and drawing their neighbors off their stoops and porches to wreathe them with smiles and shouts of recognition and joy.

The Wild Indians range closer to home on St. Joseph's Night, they don't stay out so long, and their focus is strictly local. It's a holiday for the folks in the immediate vicinity, a very special treat that's well appreciated by all, but strangers are welcome too if they can find the action for themselves and comport themselves properly while enjoying the hospitality of the humble citizens of the area.

St. Joseph's Night with the Wild Indians is not an experience to be taken lightly in any measure

St. Joseph's Night with the Wild Indians is not an experience to be taken lightly in any measure. It's the living manifestation of an age-old ritual, preserved and practiced by the descendants of the African slaves, which goes back to the perambulating societies of West Africa and their call-and-response chants, the secret societies of masked warriors which are common to both African and native American cultures, and the unsanctioned moonlight ceremonies conducted by African slaves under pain of death on the plantations of the American South.

It's a ritual which continues to live in the mean streets of fin-de-siecle New Orleans and in the hearts of the people of the most run-down, destitute, stripped-bare-and-left-for-dead underclass neighborhoods of the city, where the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras and St. Joseph's Night perennially represent the triumph of spirit, creativity, and beauty of song and dance over every obstacle the oppressor class can place in their way.

The Wild Indians almost have to be seen in action to be believed. The photos of Michael P. Smith, Chris Porche West, Sylvester "Hawk Mini-Cam" Francis, Syndey Byrd, Kichea Burt and others capture the incredible beauty of their hand-sewn creations; available recordings by the Wild Magnolias, Golden Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Bayou Renegades, Flaming Arrows, Guardians of the Flame, and other tribes convey the musical and lyrical import of their songs; and public appearances at JazzFest, in nightclubs and elsewhere give an exciting approximation of what the Wild Indians are all about.

But there's nothing like seeing the Wild Indians in their natural habitat, emerging in all their magnificent finery like eye-popping apparitions out of the doorways of dilapidated innercity houses and project apartments to strut and swagger down the middle of the beat-up streets where they struggle just like everyone else to make a living and somehow survive the crime, violence, joblessness and grinding poverty of their neighborhoods throughout the rest of the year. That's the real-life context of the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras, and year after year they manage to rise above the morass of their daily lives to make themselves over as creatures of immense beauty.

This writer first visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras 1976, on assignment for the Detroit Sun newspaper and very much on the trail of the Wild Magnolias. I filed the following story upon my return to the Motor City, and I'd like to share it with you here.

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photo © Michael P. Smith - article originally appeared at ikoiko.com in 1997.

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