I got my first taste of the Mardi Gras Indians last year at my first Mardi Gras when I saw them dancing and singing under the bridge following the Zulu parade. Then I missed Super Sunday because I was out of town for work. So this year when my schedule was clear and the weather was forecast to be warm and sunny, I knew I had to witness this classic, traditional New Orleans event. I didn’t even realize that the Indians walked down the main street near my house (S. Claiborne) and paraded, on foot, through the Uptown streets and toward A. L. Davis Park in the Central City neighborhood. I walked from my house (something I have barely done living here in New Orleans) and met up with the tribes on Washington Avenue and joined in with the jubilant procession.
The tribes, led by their Big Chiefs, greeted each other with chant and dance and other rituals. The tribes showed each other love, but there was still a friendly competition with whose tribe had the best costumes. These elaborate, bright, delicate, ornate and heavy costumes are made completely by hand by the men and women that wear them, although I think the kids have their parents or grandma design theirs. Costumes can weigh up to 150 pounds and the Big Chief’s headdress can weigh up 75 pounds alone. Let’s also add it was about 80 degrees outside. So these guys, girls and children deserve a lot of credit for doing this. Fuschia feathers, royal purple beads and powder blue rhinestones liven up the streets and inside the park gates celebrating a gathering that has been enjoyed by the people of New Orleans since 1970. Mr. John, who’s bright yellow costume topped with a carousel in his headdress, has been a Mardi Gras Indian since 1992 and said that being an Indian is something he enjoys volunteering to do.
“You do this from your heart,” Mr. John said. “This is what you want to do and I respect every man that puts on a suit.”
The festivities started at 1 p.m. and lasted until nearly sunset. I was mostly in awe by the amount of detail and individual personality in each costume. The Indians say it takes a year for them to make each one and they only get about 2-3 wears out of it (Mardi Gras, Super Sunday and maybe some Jazz Fest events) before taking it apart and start preparing for next year’s costume. Well that’s one way to make sure someone else won’t be seen wearing the same thing as you. Also, if you speak to any Indian, especially the elders and ask them about the history of the Mardi Gras Indians, they are quick to educate you on their origins of when escaped slaves found safe haven among the various Indian tribes of the South. Proving that this isn’t just a party, but a deeper and significant meaning to this sacred tradition. There is always a history lesson to be learned here in New Orleans. And a celebration to be enjoyed.