Heart & Soul: the hyphenated culture of African-American Native-Americans

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Mardi Gras 2012 falls this Tuesday, 19th February. In this Sunday Comic our author traces the origins and culture of the Mardi Gras Indians at the heart of the New Orleans carnival

Jim Gabour
19 February 2012

No city in America has been affected by its relationship with Native Americans in the manner encountered in New Orleans.  While John Wayne and his Hollywood troopers were depicted blasting away at Indians, who were themselves encircling wagon trains of settlers with an eye on prime scalp acquisition, the people of the Crescent City were offering nothing much more aggressive than amusement to the tribes that live in the swamps surrounding the settlement.

A combination of Indians and Mardi Gras have been at the heart of New Orleans’ culture since its inception.

It seems that Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, brought his skiff to shore on Mardi Gras Day 1699, and named the small stream in which he docked Mardi Gras Bayou. So even though he wasn’t quite in what would be the city yet, he started his exploration of Louisiana with a holiday.

That same day the first people he encountered were representatives of the Houmas, Chittimacha and Choctaw tribes who inhabited the region.  Bienville’s own diary describes “handsome braves, behind whom stand other villagers, women and children”. 


He gave the native men mirrors and cheap trinkets, and in return generally received a great deal of contrary and confused male-bonding-style speculation. That is, until 1718, when he took the Indian medicine mens’ finally-proffered advice for a permanent settlement and erected his first log structures in a suspiciously marshy-looking broad bend, or crescent, in the Mississippi River.  Bienville had been negotiating with these same braves for some nineteen years, before receiving and taking their advice.

Some eight months later, he was forced to build vast mounds of dirt to protect his growing outpost from the encroaching waters of what was determined to be an annual flood stage. One might speculate if the explorer had began to wonder why his friends the Indian braves had rooted him in such an untenable location.

The problem was that manly Bienville, who could cross vast oceans with only the aid of primitive navigational gear, who could fight alligators and bears with single-shot muskets and a sword, this brave and intelligent man was not at all the most observant sort when it came to social situations.

He had never noticed the tall, striking, and handsome women who were seriously and silently scowling in the shadows of the males with whom he negotiated. The Frenchman figured les femmes indiennes to be nothing more than a close kin of what he considered as the traditional, chronically disgruntled, though rather intimidating, French wives. Said women rumored to be one of the reasons he himself stayed onboard his ship for years at a time.

He did not envy their husbands.

Bienville was wrong. Badly, sorely wrong. The tribes he had met were predominantly matriarchal, and the regal women were the chiefs. They were not happy to be ignored and denigrated. They were insulted and angered at being dismissed by the wigged and powdered white man. When the female chiefs finally instructed their subservient tribesmen to point to a future site for New Orleans, Bienville would again not discern the giggles and repressed guffaws, where the laughter was originating, or who was laughing about what.

“Hell hath no fury,” goes the old proverb.  And thus was New Orleans founded below sea level, on a practical joke perpetrated by scorned women.  Indian women, whom he had first ignored on Mardi Gras Day.

Fast-forward some century and a half.  Abraham Lincoln has issued his Emancipation Proclamation, and in doing so has declared the end of slavery.  Knowing that it could be years, or quite possibly never, before the Union troops arrived in New Orleans to enforce the law, thousands of slaves fled from their masters to hide in the swamps surrounding the city.

These swamps were inhabited by the same, ever-friendly Indian tribes who had remained happily ensconced on the land even after the arrival of French, then Spanish, then American settlers.  The tribes were more than happy to take in the runaway slaves, help them house and feed themselves, and integrate them into the daily lives of their own people.

Jim Gabour invites you to visit his Carnival marching krewe, La société du saint Anne.

And this is where one theory, and the one I feel most likely, originates about the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians.  Because, when a few years later these same slaves re-entered the Union-occupied city that they had once called home, the only form of democracy under which they had personally lived was that of the loose governance of the Indian tribes.  Thus they formed their own gangs/tribes, and consolidated their neighborhoods, rallying around central focal points like bars or grocery stores, as their core.

And annually they celebrated their tribe’s survival by costuming, and masking, and fighting each other for territorial expansion, on the one day a year that African-Americans were allowed to wear a mask of any sort:  Mardi Gras Day.

Many of the tribes started in Treme, America’s oldest African-American neighborhood. The area received its namesake from one Claude Treme, a model hat maker and real estate developer who migrated from Saugivny in Burgundy, France, and settled in New Orleans in 1783. Treme owned only a small portion of the area that bore his name and was in possession of that for just a decade.

But in the 1800s, free persons of color (“gens de couleur”) and eventually those African slaves who either obtained, bought or bargained for their freedom were able to acquire and own property in Treme.  And then in the late 1860s came the freed slaves, and the Indians.  There are hundreds of examples of 18th and early 19th century ownership of large and small land areas in Faubourg Treme by free people of color.

The ability to acquire, purchase and own real property during an era when America was still immersed in slavery and its aftereffects was remarkable, and only in New Orleans did this occur with any regularity and consistency.

By the late nineteenth century these neighborhoods were flooded with tribes of “Indians”, specifically African-American Native Americans, again all running on the same day between bars, in an annual ritual to establish dominance and territory.

Another century passes.  The violence, the carrying of weapons and annual Ash Wednesday Indian mortality lists began to disappear from mid-twentieth century newspaper obituaries. 

The Mardi Gras Indians, and we, have arrived at 2012.  Things are different these days.  Now the chiefs try to outdance and outdress one another.   The guns they carry are toys covered in sequins, calling back the memory of the Bad Days as forever gone.

Sylvester Francis, the curator of the minuscule Backstreet Cultural Museum, is a self-appointed chronicler of the evolution of the Downtown Indian costume, or “suit”.

The Indians now have a second daytime parade, on what they call “Super Sunday” around St Patrick’s Day, when all tribes, Uptown & Downtown (very different looks) run on major public routes to show off their suits for that year one last time.   Bo Dollis, longtime Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, describes the beading process for Uptown Indians.

Though sometimes the violence of past years recurs in unsuspected ways.   On Super Sunday 2004, I came upon a Big Chief who was singing in a golden voice reminiscent of Sam Cooke, incredibly soulfully, with tears streaming down his face.  I saw the "RIP Son" on his headdress and figured the young man had been killed by one of the other tribes/gangs.  The Chief was totally surrounded by his tribe, so I held the camera up over my head to try and film his whole suit.   I shot for some time that day, but didn't review the tape until weeks later.  It was then, after a minute and a half of shaky footage, that I saw the bottom “apron” of the chief’s costume -- his son, in a Marine uniform, had died in Iraq.

Monk Boudreaux is Big Chief of the Golden Eagles, and the thrust of his whole life has been to continue the tradition in a totally non-violent and family-oriented manner.  Passing down the flame.  His mission has not brought him great wealth, in monetary terms, but a treasure-trove of love from the community.

This Monday night the marathon will be on, hundreds of grown men hunched over sewing machines and beading needles.  So at sunup they can run the streets of New Orleans.  Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters describes the feeling he gets from Mardi Gras Day poetically.

And on Tuesday, The Fat one, the Indians who have had their say in the evolution of New Orleans from Day One will again take to the streets.  No one will be killed.  Many will be inspired.

Even though, in the name of political correctness they will remain hyphenated.

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