Cultural Crossroads
Travel Ideas

Indians Comin': Big Chief Got A Golden Crown

On the Congo Plains tribal people gathered to celebrate their religion and culture with family and friends from nearby communities. As these gatherings grew, customs of their homeland were often fobidden by landowners and the gatherings tightly controlled.

Though these African celebrations took place thousands of miles from home on the plantations of the southern United States, participants could identify their cultural origins and maintained their identity as best they could from the earliest times of slavery through the Civil War.

Wild MagnoliasWild Magnolias
Click on a member of New Orleans' Wild Magnolias to see more costume detail.
Music was, in part, preserved by the steady stream of Black immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary, into the Gulf Coast states. Most willing immigrants were refugees of poverty and civil unrest in the Caribbean Islands of Haiti and Cuba, where their African traditions were strong.

Following the Civil War, Southern White lawmakers and wealthy plantation owners enforced strict laws on Black Freedmen. The repressive Jim Crow laws, intended to maintain segregation, also served to diminish historical cultural identity of Southern Blacks. As Haitians continued to migrate into the New Orleans area around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, African drumming was kept alive. Congo Square in New Orleans became a focal point of Black social activity.

The Mardi Gras Indians emerged in the late 1800s playing Afro-Caribbean rhythms and wearing costumes made of beads and feathers which were modeled after Native American ceremonial dress. Their traditional music is played with congas, tambourines and belled wrist and ankle bands.

The distinction of rhythms, which were once more specific to tribal practices in different regions of Africa, were somewhat blurred by the turn of the century. But the preservation of the intricate rhythms was critical to the development of jazz and funk, which the Mardi Gras Indians were instrumental in preserving and popularizing.

Some of the Black participants in the "tribal gatherings" were of Native American ancestry. Slaves periodically escaped to nearby Indian villages, were made members of the tribe and/or intermarried into the tribe. This was most common with Seminoles, who were aided in their wars against the United States with the help of Black generals and soldiers.

The main purpose of the bright, feathered costumes, some weighing over 100 pounds, may have been to compete with "tribes" in other neighborhoods, to suit the spirit of the celebration and to identify with the look of the well-established Carnival events in mostly Black Caribbean communities, such as Trinidad.

Mardi Gras festivities in the neighborhoods around New Orleans were the show place for the "Black Indian Tribes." The Indians popularity grew with the rise in Native American pride and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Major record labels recorded two prominent groups of Mardi Gras Indians, The Wild Magnolias and The Wild Tchoupitoulas, in the 1970s. Les Blank made the film Always for Pleasure featuring The Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1978.

Two recordings were subsequently made by the Smithsonian Folkways record label: Lightning and Thunder featuring Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles and The Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday Showdown, featuring an all star cast of New Orleans' regular participants and admirers of the Indians' sound. Lightning and Thunder, recorded at the H&R Bar "live and in context" is truly a window to the sound of the past and offers great informative liner notes.

The Mardi Gras Indians generally appear at undisclosed parade routes on Mardi Gras Day. They participate in events such as the Zulu Parade and Lundi Gras, when they cross the Mississippi River on a barge, arriving at Spanish Plaza to perform on the day before Fat Tuesday. The Indians' big event, Super Sunday takes place following Mardi Gras near St. Joseph's Day.

/Stay tuned, more to come.

-- Mark D. Lacy

Additional notes:

Many Black Seminoles are buried in an interesting cemetery south of Brackettville, Texas. After the Seminole Wars, the tribe was removed to Oklahoma and many of its members wandered to South Texas and to Mexico. Most buried in the cemetery were born in Texas after relocation, but a few of the Black Seminoles were born in Florida and the Carolinas. Many Indian and Black soldiers became scouts for the United States army during the period of U.S. expansion into the West. Their graves are marked with their rank. The cemetery is still maintained by descendants of the Black Seminoles.

Some of the Black Indians are believed to have joined the Kickapoos along the Texas/Mexico border.

The Mardi Gras Indians' connection with Native America is more usually tied to central Gulf Coast tribes such as the Choctaw.