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.
[Excerpt from Ron Welburn’s essay “Native Americans in Jazz, Blues, And Popular Music”, which is included in indiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americans.]