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Mardi Gras in New Orleans:
Running the Streets of the Crescent City

By John Sinclair

continued ...

Black Eagles by Michael P. Smith

The Wild Indians represent a unique and highly unusual synthesis of two aboriginal cultures, the West African and the Southern American Indian, which share a great many factors in common: a tribal, communal form of social organization, a pantheistic religious environment, and a highly formalized system of communal worship centered on music and dancing, to name a few. Originally masking as Indians in order to participate in the Mardi Gras celebration of the whites (or so one popular story goes), New Orleans Blacks in the latter 19th century adopted the Indian persona and began to develop it for their own purposes, investing it with enough pure Africanisms to make it more and more suited to their peculiar needs.

It is widely said that the Blacks who became "Indians" on Mardi Gras held the original Indians in great respect, particularly admiring their refusal to bow down or humble (''houmbah'') themselves before the whites. They also expressed tremendous admiration for the Indians' beautiful ceremonial garb and for their ferocious fighting ability; in fact, until recent years the Wild Indians met in actual combat on Mardi Gras, with the various tribes (there are now some twenty to thirty) challenging one another to sure-enough wars on the battlefield complete with guns, knives, broken bottles, and other instruments of mayhem.

Under the older practices the Indian tribes were judged on their fierceness, fighting ability, and the number of casualties they were able to inflict on rival tribes. After the second World War much pressure was brought to bear against the systematic violence of the Indian confrontations, and gradually the values of beauty in dress and artistic prowess in the songs and dances of the ritual became pre-eminent. Now the Big Chiefs go into fits of dancing and singing frenzy when they meet another tribe, striving to impress the spectators with their beauty and grace rather than their ability to inflict harm on their peers. And on St. Joseph's Night formal competitions are held among the many tribes, with the Big Chiefs, secondary chiefs, flag boys, spy boys, queens, princesses, and witch doctors all vying to be named the baddest in their category.

The costumes are the central focus these days, and the Indians spend many hours before Mardi Gras Day designing, cutting, sewing, beading and feathering their own elaborate outfits. Each year a new design and color scheme are devised by each tribe, and after St. Joseph's Night - the second and final appearance of the Indians for another year - the costumes are taken apart bead by bead and feather by feather. (A new tradition begins this year, however, as the Indians have decided to keep their outfits intact until after the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, held in the middle of April, where they will make an official appearance in 1976 and hereafter.)

The members of the tribes grow up in the tradition, masking first as young boys, then as spy boys and flag boys, and finally graduating into the ranks of the Chiefs and Witch Doctors. There is also an increasing number of little girls and young women in full costume taking part in the ceremonies these days, marking a distinct break with tradition. All the members of a particular tribe come from the same neighborhood, the second-liners are their neighbors, friends, relatives and co-workers, and they dance and sing for the rest of the people in the immediate community. Most white New Orleanians, and many blacks as well, don't even know the Indians exist, and the Indians don't particularly care if they do.

The Wild Magnolias, the Golden Star Hunters, Mohawks, Black Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Blades, Little Red White & Blues, Wild Squatoolies and the rest of the tribes have emerged and evolved within the boundaries of New Orleans' Black neighborhoods, where they exist as year-round cultural heroes - particularly among the young men of the community, who follow their exploits, march with them on the holy days, and wish to god they could wear the formal dress of the Chiefs and other official tribesmen. They provide a thread of cultural continuity which is as strong and bright as their garb - rehearsing and hanging out in the neighborhood bars, bragging of their conquests and their plans for next year, and generally providing a clear and visible link to the glorious culture of their ancestral homeland.Until the past few years the Indians were almost totally unknown to the world at large.

Since the Wild Magnolias cut their album (released here on Polydor Records in 1974) and have accepted public engagements outside the Mardi Gras context, however, it's just a matter of time until they move into the mainstream of American popular culture, bringing the rest of America a musical and cultural treat unlike anything it's ever seen before.

I was blessed with the opportunity this year to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where I marched in the streets uptown with the Wild Magnolias and witnessed this incredible phenomenon for myself. I'd like to thank my guide, Ms. Nancy Ochsenschlager of Ann Arbor and New Orleans; Quint Davis, manager of Professor Longhair and the Wild Magnolias and producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; Doctor John, Ronnie Barron, and Earl Turbinton, native musicians of New Orleans; Cyril Neville, George "Freak Man" Porter, and the rest of The Meters; and everyone else who helped me get my story in the Crescent City.

Additional thanks to the staff of the Home Sweet Home motel, where I rested my weary ass each morning after conducting my lengthy investigations into the life of the city; to the publishers of the Detroit Sun newspaper, who grudgingly paid my way; and to everyone else who helped make my first visit to New Orleans a thoroughly enjoyable, educational, and inspirational trip.

A New Orleans photographer and filmmaker named Jules Cahn has recently issued a 15-minute color videotape of Wild Indian footage, and if you ever hear that it's being shown somewhere near you, please don't miss it. Bonaroo!

-- Detroit, April 1976

Suggested Listening

"Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Running the Streets of the Crescent City"
© 1976, 1997 John Sinclair - All Rights Reserved
photos © Michael P. Smith

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