“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.”
When I was in New Orleans I had the opportunity to catch the Mardi Gras Indians on Super Sunday. It was quite the spectacle, and an amazing tradition to witness. You can learn more about them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mardi_Gras_Indians
New Orleans, with its extraordinarily complex cultural history, is the most important city in early jazz history. The Mardi Gras Indians are part of a large cultural phenomenon that - viewed in the historical crosscurrents of indigenous and African cultures in the Caribbean, the Atlantic Islands, and Latin America (and mumming traditions of Ireland and Europe)- bears a significant though controversial counter to surface presumptions about stereotyping Indians. During the pre-Lenten carnivals and other holidays, blacks and Creoles (which came to dignify Indian, French, or Spanish mixtures) in and around New Orleans gathered at the famous Congo Square, where Houmas, Chitimachas, and other tribes traditionally gathered for festivities. When New Orleans hosted Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1884 and 1885, local blacks, Creoles, and Indians socialized with the Plains Indians in Buffalo Bill’s extravaganzas and observed their parades. This led to the first acknowledged Mardi Gras Indian group, the Creole Wild West of the late 1880s, organized by Becate Batiste who was part Choctaw.
Segregation laws preventing non-white revelers from participating in Mardi Gras compelled them to make their own festivities. According to Michael P. Smith, historically (and to a lesser degree today), local Indians were among these Mardi Gras Indians. With their tremendous headdresses, elaborate costumes consisting of painstakingly beaded and sequined patterns, parades, and names such as the Yellow Pocahantas and the Golden Star Hunters, members of today’s Mardi Gras “tribes” continue to take seriously identities that are steeped in the history of New Orleans secret societies. Each Mardi Gras tribe has its “big chief”, its “wild man” (a medicine-man figure), and scouts called “spy boys” (one of whom was Jelly Roll Morton as a youth), and all members feign and gesticulate in an “Indian” way. The Mardi Gras Indian subculture, unlike ordinary Indian mascot performers, is a handed-down survival strategy against colonialism and slavery. As in Trinidad during Carnival, to “masque”, or “mask”, in New Orleans means to dress up for a festive occasion, and by masking as Indians, the Mardi Gras revelers acknowledge Indians for their assistance during tough times. One Mardi Gras utterance, “kogma-feena”, has been traced by linguist Emanuel J. Drechsel to the Choctaw-based Mobilian trade jargon that developed among Gulf-region Natives as a form of language interchange. “To-way-pa-la-way,” a common refrain in their call and responses, is in the rhythm-and-blues song “Don’t You Know Yockomo,” recorded in 1958 by the New Orleans group Huey Smith & the Clowns. Drechsel and Joseph Roach believe this phrase may have filtered through Mobilian from African and Creole sources.
The Mardi Gras Indians are probably most well-known for their elaborate costumes of intricate beadwork and brightly colored feathers. But their farthest-reaching, most profound contribution to New Orleans culture is in the music they make. As Dr. John once said, “New Orleans music is Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, and Mardi Gras Indian."
When Mardi Gras Indians march in a parade or carnival procession, a core group of musicians play drums and other percussion instruments — tom toms, penny jars, bells, buckets and forty bottles — calling out chants in improvised languages and responding in kind.
One such call and response song found its way into pop-culture consciousness. Recorded as “Jock-A-Mo” by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford and the Cane Cutters on Chess Records in 1953, and later by pop golden group The Dixie Cups, the song borrowed the lyrics from taunting chants Sugar Boy heard the Mardi Gras Indians sing when he was a boy.
My flag boy and your flag boy
Were sittin’ by the fire My flag boy told your flag boy, ‘I’m gonna set your flag on fire.’”
My grammaw and your grammaw were sittin’ by the bayou my grammaw tole yo gramma I’m gonna set you flag on fire
talk about hey now (Hey now!) Hey now (Hey now!)
Iko iko anday Jockomo feena andan day Jockomo feena-hay!
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.