Wednesday, April 7, 2010


One of the many wonderful and weird things that one gets to experience in New Orleans are the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras Indians are somewhat difficult to explain, but, over-simplistically, they can be described as; African Americans who create and then parade down the streets of New Orleans in elaborate costumes decorated with feathers and beads or sequins. Mardi Gras Indians form strict hierarchical groups (tribes) that do 'battle' with members of other tribes in the form of singing and dancing as they parade through the streets. The costume a Mardi Gras Indian wears is called a 'suit', and takes thousands of hours of work to create. Every tribesman makes his own suit (or at least, helps in the making of it with assistance of his family) and the costs of the materials for a suit can be in the thousands of dollars. The very best compliment you can give an Indian is to tell him he has a "real pretty suit" or a "nice suit". A new suit is made each year for the Mardi Gras parades, and often members of a tribe will begin designing and purchasing items for their next suit as soon as Mardi Gras is over.

The Indian's position in the tribe also provides some requirements for the suit, as Tootie Montana, the long-time chief of the Yellow Pocahontas explained:

"You've got first chief, which is Big Chief; First Queen; you've got Second Chief and Second Queen; Third Chief and Third Queen. First, Second, and Third chiefs are supposed to have a queen with them. That's just tradition. I found them doing that. ..You also have your Spy Boy, your Flag Boy and your Wild Man. Your Spy Boy is way out front, three blocks in front the chief. The Flag Boy is one block in front so he can see the Spy Boy up ahead and he can wave his flag to let the chief know what is going on. Today, they don't do like they used to. Today you're not going to see any Spy Boy with a pair of binoculars around his neck and a small crown so he can run. Today a Spy Boy looks like a chief and somebody carrying a big old stick. It's been years since I seen a proper flag... The Wild Man wearing the horns in there to keep the crowd open and to keep it clear. He's between the Flag Boy and the Chief."

Often you can tell the Big Chief and First Queen by their elaborate costumes and large headdresses, and the chief carries some sort of identifier of the tribe (the "big stick" that Tootie refers to above). Flag boys have embellished 'flags' to signal danger, and the wild man wears a headdress with animal horns attached.

The origin of the Mardi Gras Indians is difficult to determine . It appears that the Mardi Gras Indians have masked and paraded in New Orleans for around two hundred years. It is clear that West African influences,Native American influences (both those of local tribes such as the Choctaw and Chitimacha as well as those of the plains Indians) and the New Orleans slave and free black traditions contributed to the costumes, chants and culture of the 'Indians'. The fact that local Native Americans in Louisiana assisted escaped slaves from New Orleans and surrounding plantations, may have inspired slaves in New Orleans to dress in the style of Native Americans.

Regardless of what inspired Mardi Gras Indians to start making and wearing their suits, the results of their handiwork are amazing. The pictures below are taken at the Mardi Gras Indian parade on st. Joseph's day.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty!

A beautiful suit made by a female Mardi Gras Indian. If you look closely, you can see the pictographs representing the life of female Native Americans. I caught this Indian before she had put on her headdress, you can see it being held by the woman next to her. I am pretty sure this is a Hard Head Hunter tribe member.

Again, I sadly captured this Indian without his headdress. According to he is a spy boy for the Hard Head Hunters tribe. If you link to you can see him fully dressed at in the slide show at the bottom of the page.

Indian butt! Notice how an a single suit can contain several accessories that are equally impressive as the costume itself. Here you can see a fan and a flag. This is probably a cheif given how much equipment he has.

An individual suit can weigh over a hundred pounds. They are also quite hot and do not allow for air circulation. This particular Indian was so hot and dizzy by the time he got to me that I ended up giving him a drink of water out of my nalgene bottle.

According to, this is the Mohawk Hunters Flag Boy Jamal Casby. the two 'flags' are visible at the bottom of the photo.

A small child gets in on the dancing.

A young flag boy, holding his shotgun shaped flag.

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