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.

[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.]

Between watching Treme and seeing that Andrew Garfield gifset about sewing, I wanted to spread awareness about the Mardi Gras Indians.

"The Mardi Gras Indians are a fascinating subculture of New Orleans. They are hierarchical, territorial tribes in African-American communities and give themselves names like Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West and Fi Yi Yi. The tribes celebrate Mardi Gras with traditions that date back to the 1800s, when Mardi Gras krewes excluded blacks. Shut out by segregation, African-Americans began to celebrate in their own neighborhoods.

Today tribes meet each other and compete through performance and art to see who has the prettiest costumes. The Indians spend countless hours and thousands of dollars creating elaborate costumes and headdresses that include intricate hand-sewn designs in beads, sequins, stones and feathers.” (

Basically, these are grown men who spend hours sewing costumes with beads, sequins and feathers of all colors and then compete to see who is the prettiest.

So if anyone ever insults sewing or being called pretty, remember that those two things just put you in league with some pretty badass people.

One of the most unique gems of New Orleans culture is the Mardi Gras Indians, a stunning array of color and sound, born from local African-American heritage. One of the Indians’ most well-known traditions is their music—a distinctive “gumbo” of percussion instruments and call-and-response vocals. Songs like “Jock-a-Mo,” “Trouble the Water” and “Indian Red” have shaped New Orleans’ music scene since the early 20th century, with greats such as Sugar Boy Crawford, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair and Dr. John all directly borrowing musical elements from Mardi Gras Indian songs. Check out our list of the top five Mardi Gras Indian musical figures, and get ready to get your funk on.

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & The Golden Eagles (Photo by Susan Whelan)