mardi gras indians

Flag Boy

There are images that you fight for, and others that give themselves to you as a gift. When I saw him I immediately knew I had the signature image of my entire collection of nearly 600 photographs. I remember the feeling of perfect satisfaction when capturing this shot. He was so peaceful and self-assured, and gave me just enough time to capture him before moving along. I wish I knew who he was so I could send him a copy. 

“I had a brother that passed away three years ago and he enticed me to be a Mardi Gras Indian and keep the tradition in the family going. So it means a lot. It’s sentimental. And one of my uncles just recently passed away - Bo Dollis Sr. It’s in the blood line. Now we try to involve more kids in it so they can grow into the culture, so they won’t be afraid of the Mardi Gras Indians and so they can see that it’s real culture.”

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Photographs by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection

New Orleans, LA

It is no secret that New Orleans is made of its own kind of magic. During Mardi Gras — the city’s culmination ultimé — a reified sacred world emerges from the street, so raw and brightly colored you have to squint. No matter where you are in the city or what time of day it is, men in masks throw beads from balconies and glowing LED light-up trinkets swandive from fiberglass floats, school kids in marching bands tilt their trumpets to the sky in unison, as if lifting their golden throats to sing holy holy in some tribal rhythmic ritual. Crack a crawdad and suck out its insides, and boogie in a bounce-induced fever and watch as everyone slips into proper southern swoon. 

The most elusive tradition is the march of the Mardi Gras Indians. A tradition nearly three centuries old, the Mardi Gras Indians are African-American “tribes" borne out of working-class neighborhoods, secret societies, and spiritual groups. The Indians wear elaborate hand-beaded and feathered costumes, or “suits,” that members of the tribe spend the whole year making. Each suit comes to symbolize a specific and hierarchical position within the tribe, be it that of chief, queen, spy boy, or wild man, and the ornate patterns tell a tale all their own. Mystery shrouds the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians. Some say they pay homage to the Native Americans in the Houma and Chitihacha tribes who provided refuge for runaway slaves in the swamplands of Louisiana, while others maintain it was a show for Buffalo Bill’s visit west. 

In public ceremony, tribes dance and circle round each other in ritualistic competition. Once violent in nature, these days rival tribes compete for the superior suit and act of showmanship. When rival chiefs meet on the streets, they shout boasts and insults and you lookin good, babys at each other, while chanting call-and-response ditties that their grandparents before their grandparents before their grandparents sang. The songs remain to this day the most prominent and accessible part of Mardi Gras Indian culture. A line of percussionists offer support with tom drums, penny jars, bells, and forty bottles. It’s a spectacle of magic realism, characters of folklore, myth and legend culled from neighborhood 7-11s and front porch stoops.   

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Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was born in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward, and grew up involved with Mardi Gras Indian culture, a family tradition. Early on he toured with his cousin, saxophonist and Indian chief Donald Harrison. Scott aTunde Adjuah also melds jazz and hip-hop beats. Critic Kevin Whitehead says, his new EP, Ruler Rebel, ties all those threads together.

Ruler Rebel is inflected with the looping rhythms and drum samples of contemporary hip-hop. But where some danceable bands get so deep in the groove they neglect the solos, Scott serves up a lot of trumpet. He has what you want in a soloist: a commanding personal voice, and a sense of direction. He can play a line to pull you along.”

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BLACK & NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY: 1585 AND BEYOND