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Endangered Culture: New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians

Guest Editorial by Mark Andresen (aka Pesky Illustrator)

Before Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the city, New Orleans placed great importance on its culture and traditions — some now in jeopardy of disappearing. This isn’t metaphoric, but factual. The evacuation has led to a diaspora of the New Orleans culture across the rest of the country. Estimates are that only a third of the population has returned so far. And a city without its people has a small chance at creating and maintaining culture.

One of these disappearing traditions is that of the Mardi Gras Indians or Masking Indian — “the parade most white people don’t see” as one of its most ubiquitous figures, Big Chief Larry Bannock, once said a few years ago — quickly becoming endangered as its main participants suffer from increasing poverty, dislocation and negligence to support their nearly 200-year-old tradition.

Chief Bannock by Paula Stratton
Big Chief Larry Bannock; photo by Paula Stratton

Their actual history is a bit cloudy. Some say it started as a homage to the days when runaway black slaves fled into the swamps and formed alliances with the Creeks, Cherokee and Seminoles. Intermarriages were common and generations of New Orleanians trace their lineage back to that time. Masking Indian was seen by both white and black cultures as organized street gangs from notorious neighborhoods “up to no good”. Mardi Gras offered an opportunity for rival gangs to disguise themselves and go settle scores across town. Uptown Indians fought with Downtown Indians and the result was confrontation and bloodshed. The police to this day still have a wary suspicion of these gatherings. Eventually, actual fights between tribes evolved into stylized mock battles: Thread and needle have replaced guns and knives.

Someone once said that New Orleans is the antidote to minimalism: Everything in excess. Mardi Gras Indians took this to heart with a passion. Their participation in Carnival evolved into a display of public art and outstanding craftsmanship, but kept its rebelliousness alive. Nobody could tell a Mardi Gras Indian what to do on Mardi Gras morning. Their culture became a self-evolving folk art and a wellspring of New Orleans music. The wanderings of the tribes took on more of a celebratory aspect with battle chants becoming popular street music rhythms. New Orleans’ Creole patois still intact, Indian music was an important influence on such musicians as Jelly Roll Morton (once a “Spy Boy” in his youth). Also Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers had this influence to their sound. From there it snaked across America in pop Rhythm and Blues.

Unnamed Chief by Paula Stratton
Unnamed Chief; photo by Paula Stratton

The parade, with its roots in deadly confrontations, is now a battle of tribes fought with dance, song and elaborate dress, with the Chief’s “suit” being the most important. A ritualized confrontation of socially-ranked participants, precedes the arrival of each tribe’s Chief — and sometimes their Indian Queens and children — who dance, sing and boast about their suits’ finer qualities. The hierarchy of these tribes is set up to carry out these battles. Out front was the “Spy Boy” — the lookout — vigilant for the approach of other tribes. His signal to the “Flag Boy” set off an alert for danger. Followed by the “Wild Man”, whose horned headdress indicated that his duty was to keep crowds clear for the “Big Chief”, a man of high esteem. Moving up the ranks required skill in designing their elaborate suits. The winner of this stylized battle was the one who presented the most magnificent display. Being called “pretty” was a major compliment and acknowledgement was hard to come by.

Mardi Gras Indians will spend an entire year making a new suit. To wear one twice is a disgrace worthy of being called out in public. In the creation of these eight-foot-tall plumed Indian suits a man who is a shipyard welder 364 days a year can step out his door to his “Nation of Indians” and lead his people parading and singing around the city on Mardi Gras Day. One gang would meet another at Shakespeare Park or on Saint Claude Avenue near the projects and challenge each other to what is essentially an aesthetic design competition — one that is taken very seriously.

The Mardi Gras suit is divided into parts in somewhat the same way European suits of armor were constructed: breastplate, leggings, arm sleeves, moccasins, and crown. Weighing up to 150 pounds in the heat and humidity of the Crescent City, wearing one of these suits is an achievement all by itself. They’re made of canvas and covered in velvet and ribbons, and then encrusted with seperately beaded illustrations called “patches”, and finally encircled with three- to four-foot-high plumed feathers. All of them highly illustrated with beaded images on every angle. To call it a costume would be to miss the point.

Chief Bannock by Will Crocker
Big Chief Larry Bannock; photo by Will Crocker

The patches are usually depictions of American Indian themes: wolves, bears, eagles, and depictions of American Plains Indians, Apaches and Cheyenne braves. Rebellious figures like Geronimo and Sitting Bull are popular. Usually about twelve by sixteen inches and tightly sewn on with thread, seed beads and rhinestones. Thousands of them in each picture sown on. One by one. Since the colors are limited, the final art is intensely graphic. A Technicolor mosaic-like framed image, say, of a red skinned renegade warrior riding a painted pony under a turquoise sky near an orange and brown mesa. Outside, on the street, it looks like diamonds and rubies.

Everything about a suit is handmade. Ostrich plumes bought from a distributor in New York were the only outlet for their crowning glory, instructed to be dyed in the brightest colors: Shining Yellow, Fiery Orange, Hot Pink and Lime Green. It is difficult to describe the sight of ten Mardi Gras Indians parading on a sunny Carnival Day with their feathers blowing and beaded patches glittering, rippling in color. People almost get high on the color. It’s like a meeting of macaws in the Amazon rainforest.

Chief Bannock by Will Crocker
Photo by Will Crocker; illustration by Mark Andresen; beading by Big Chief Larry Bannock

Today the Chiefs are dwindling to a chosen few. Suits are sold to museums. Young men are too impatient to sew or follow the respect of their elders’ tradition. Gangs are replacing tribes once again in a city lost to chaos. For over a dozen years I drew pictures mostly for one Chief: Larry Bannock, the Big Chief of Chiefs. He came from Gert Town, one of the poor neighborhoods. Often times, he would have been sewing all day and night to meet that dawn on Mardi Gras morning. Living at subsistence level now, he’s determined to keep that tradition alive. And so am I.

Patch Detail
Illustration by Mark Andresen; beading by Big Chief Larry Bannock

The last time I was there, his neighborhood looked more like some apocalyptic dream than any conceivable American city. It’s shocking and shameful that after a year, the wreckage is still so extensive. Chief Bannock’s house is still broken and he sometimes lives in his car, but he continues to be the Mardi Gras Indian Chief of the 17th Ward known as Gert Town. As an ambassador of New Orleans culture, he needs help in the aftermath of Katrina. Many of us who have known him for years have been doing what we can to give him financial aid. But we are too hard hit ourselves to be as supportive as we we’d like. And we can’t bare to see culture and tradition lost to negligence. The plight of New Orleans after the catastrophe is very real. And it is also cultural. As visual communicators and translators of culture we can not afford a loss like this.

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Speak Up would like to offer the opportunity to anyone who is interested in directly helping Big Chief Larry Bannock and his effort to maintain this tradition alive. Donation amounts are left to your consideration. All the funds will go directly to Larry Bannock and Speak Up will cover the PayPal transaction expenses.

If donations are not your cup of tea, you may also help Larry Bannock by comissioning hand-made beading. You’ve seen what he can do. Your next great poster, ad or package could look swell.
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ARCHIVE ID 2801 FILED UNDER Discussion
PUBLISHED ON Oct.25.2006 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Tselentis’s comment is:

Mark,

What I'm most curious about, is whether or not any candidates have brought these cultural gems to light during this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections. Are they really in danger of going the way of dinosaurs? Arts, crafts, and design don't come into politics often, unless you're talking about the Lower Manhattan Development Project and the new skyscraper starchitects hope to build. Don't these Chiefs and Queens deserve equal attention? Or at least, national attention?

On Oct.25.2006 at 09:03 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Jason, actually, today turned into a big multiple Deadline Day for me here, so I wouldn't be readliy available to be very conversational. Hmmmm, bad timing...but things spring up, ya know.

Extinction doesn't happen "like the dinosaurs" to traditions. The city is starting to get a grip on the crises after many long months of being overwhelmed by the aftermath.
OK, everybody knows Katrina did big damage to several Gulf States. Everybody moves on to the next Big News Item, except for the ones living there.

I'm an evacuee. I'm not there up to my hips in it, but I care about the city and these folks in particular. I appreciate their art.

Rather than concentrate on the political aspect of this - funds, failed attempts at forming cultural funding for art, such as you do in NYC, New Orleans just let people be. When you have a large organizations like Rex, Momus and The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, it was all self-organized - pre-corporate funding status. Like Mardi Gras itself, it was never a shill for Big Corporations and Product Placement like nearly everything else. It's the way the culture is down there. And it was free.

The city administration has been supportive, I guess. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, is doing the best he can and he knows of the Indians' situation. Maybe they ARE getting aid but individually, like everyone else in line: for the basics.

My goal is to bring this tradtion to a wider audience not tell a colorful, but sad story. In particular, after asking permission from Larry Bannock, my friend back in New Orleans if it was OK to see if I could raise a little money to help him out. He shrugged and said "sure." People get tired of living under tarped roofs. So it's as simple as that.

On Oct.25.2006 at 10:50 AM
Art’s comment is:

Hi Mark,

Not to nitpick, but it was it was the complete failure of the levee system that nearly destroyed New Orleans, not the hurricane itself. That said, the Mardi Gras Indians are certainly one subculture of the broader ‘New Orleans’ culture, I truly feared would not survive this catastrophe since many have lost their homes and livelihoods. Another would be the Flambeauxs, whose dancing in the streets during Mardi Gras I have fond memories of. And, while dancing with a pole torch along side a float hardly approaches the skill it takes to create a beaded suit, the historical and cultural lineage of the Flambeauxs seems no less significant. I’m curious if you know how their plight fares in the aftermath since their individual and collective identities are less well known compared to that of the Indians (for example, “Big Chief Monk Boudreaux” & “The Golden Eagles”).

One thing I would like to say here, which doesn’t seem all too popular, is that pre-Katrina New Orleans was a banana republic with a somewhat impoverished workforce. And, though the economic and social systems in place largely contributed to the evolution of Brass Bands, Mardi Gras Indians and Flambeauxs (to name a few), they also facilitated a downward trajectory for the communities that gave birth to and supported these subcultures. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans long enough has seen and felt the heartache, which comes along with all of the glee--it was a package deal. Well, I personally don’t want to see New Orleans recreated the way it was before the levees broke--a city of mostly low-paying, service industry workers with businesses relying on two or three key events per year to make the majority of their revenue while sweating out the long, hot summer. Still, I wonder, is it possible to maintain a cultural heritage rooted in such screwed up circumstances without it becoming a mere facsimile of itself?

Thanks for the fine article,
Art

PS, Would Chief Bannock consider selling his pieces as works of art? Just a thought...

On Oct.25.2006 at 11:58 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> Don't these Chiefs and Queens deserve equal attention? Or at least, national attention?

Having worked with Pesky on this story and having both of us discuss, at length, whether this was a story worth telling on Speak Up, I am very pleased to be able to host a story that, as Jason wonders, would get little to no attention. While the visibility on Speak Up may not gather much more than "little to no attention" in terms of the big picture I think it's important to bring it to the attention of the design community. Given that most of us thrive off, are inspired by and regulary interpret any number of cultural traditions – and specifically when it's as visually arresting as the Mardi Gras Indians – it's important to know what has the potential of being lost. Or salvaged.

Plus, in not much of a stretch, we as designers are no more different than the Chiefs and participants of this parade: We work our asses off obsessing about details, getting the visuals perfect, working within a timeline, a budget and against a deadline, just so that at the end of the day we parade our work in a boardroom to meet approval or pit "in battle" against other designers in design competitions. And some designers even have as much showmanship as the Chiefs.

On Oct.25.2006 at 12:02 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Art, I acknowledge the truth in what you say... banana republic, poverty, crime and all. And yes, it was the complete failure of the levee system that brought this catastrophe about, the hurricane was the start. But even with these problems, something inherent in these people found joy in what they were doing. It WAS a package deal, like you say. The problem now is one of basics and a long road home. Rebuilding without recreating the same flawed circumstances: A slow returning population, an economy based solely on the gaming industry and tourism, a school system in shambles. The condition of our older neighborhoods.

The problem is a race against Time itself. A geologically compromised area...the levee failure..and future hurricane seasons. It's what is.

As for Mr. Bannock, yes, he does sell patches. If anyone is interested, I can make the arrangements.

On Oct.25.2006 at 12:21 PM
Art’s comment is:

Mark, I do agree with ALL you say and it’s that undying will to find a way to enjoy life no matter what you’ve been dealt that keeps New Orleans unique among American cities. I guess my concern is that the model for a ‘new’ New Orleans will be more along the lines of what happened to the St. Thomas houses and the Wal*Martization of NOLA's low-income neighborhoods. Housing that’s created (as it appears to me) specifically for minimum wage, zero-healthcare workers is only going to perpetuate the social ills that plagued the city before Katrina. And now, as you stated, the gaming industry is poised to “save” New Orleans, presumably by drawing tourist to the city year-round instead of only during the Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and Sugar Bowl seasons. Harrah’s 450 new rooms will need housemaids, dish washers and toilet scrubbers galore. And, like Wal*Mart employees, I doubt they will be offered full-time hours thus denying them access to benefits. Sorry for the pessimism--it's usually only skepticism!

On Oct.26.2006 at 12:05 PM
Matt’s comment is:

I appreciate the article, but I felt it should be noted that although the Mardi Gras Indians history is cloudy, there is no actual proof that this wonderful tradition developed from intermarriage/relationships between ascaped slaves and American Indians. One fact is that the costumes are stylized versions of Plains Indian garb. However, there were no Plains Indians in Louisiana. There were Attakapas, Chitimachas, Coushattas and Opelousas... no Cherokees though.

The tradition has been most likely attributed to Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which came down to New Orleans in the late 19th century. The show presented a stereotyped version American Indians that most likely became adopted by groups of blacks in the area (remember when kids would play cowboys and indians?). What I find most interesting is that the rich and beautiful culture of the Mardi Gras Indians might have been developed by ethnic stereotypes, which no longer play a role in New Orleans' tradition because it is now their own.

Whatever the actual history is, I still agree that the Mardi Gras Indians' culture should be supported and maintained.

On Oct.28.2006 at 02:46 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Warning: The academic in me got loose for this paragraph. There’s a great anthropology dissertation in the subject of art that might seem to be of a feminine nature (making frilly feathered dresses, dance, and poetry come to mind) that grows out of a ceremonial sublimation of violent hyper-masculinity. Skalds (10th century Icelandic poets) and Mardi Gras Indians represent particularly high points but the dozens and rap competitions come to mind. A strong framework for brags and insults is common. Look at my king all dressed in red. . . betcha five dollars he'll kill you dead; yo mama so fat. . . ; [sorry, I can't remember any alliterative Old Icelandic insults].

On Oct.28.2006 at 03:10 PM
Andresen’s comment is:

Matt, all the information about Black Indian origins, I got in conversations with the Chiefs. Bannock has always told me BOTH stories about their origin that he had heard from older gentlemen who masked in the 20's thru 50's.(Of course, there were no Plains Indians in Louisiana, but they made no distinction in the images they gave me to draw.It was their sources and I just drew. I've also seen some personal family photos of the early suits and they were very much in the Plains Indian style: war paint, simple eagle feather war bonnets, hatchets and buckskin.

There have been continuing friendly contacts between indigenous tribal groups, particularly Louisian's Houma tribe, and these Black Indians over the years. More than one Chief has told me that he has mixed Indian blood from his ancestors so , like I said, I'm relaying what I heard.
Documentary photographers Michael P. Smith and Syndey Byrd, both very knowledgeable on the subject have written about and photographed these events for a long time and they say the same thing. I'd recommend Smith's book on the subject.

Thanks for the points you bring up, though. I'll even ask some more questions myself...

On Oct.28.2006 at 07:37 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

It is possible that the Mardi Gras Indians also were influenced by Caribbean and Latin influences as well.

As far as Katrina, what could I say that Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint didn't say better in “Broken Promise Land” on The River in Reverse CD.

Chief Boudreaux was quoted as saying that he saved the costumes first, then the family. He was featured on the Jazz Fest's magnificent Congo Square Poster this year.

New Orleans will be back.

It won't be saved by anyone in politics—Louisiana politics are part of the extreme local color. (”So what if he's a crook—we like him.” is what one friend said upon the conviction of a previous governor.) The federal government is barely touching Louisiana, after all, it is poor, black, and filled with Democrats. But next door in Mississippi, Trent Lott is taking care of his home and state...

New Orleans will be saved by the people who slowly return and carve whatever niche they can. The spirit(s), the color, the music, the food all combine to give a richness to life there that doesn't exist. The poorest person feels special because they are from N'awlins.

Architects such as Bild Design (featured in October 2006 Dwell Magazine) had already built affordable housing, interpreting the local camel back. Scott Ball, an architect, has been hired by the State of Louisiana to oversee planning for the rebuild. Scott has coordinated an affordable housing non-profit here in Atlanta.

I have always been inspired by my visits to New Orleans. If you haven't been, or know it only as Bourbon Street, go during the off season. There are some absolute gems of museums. You may have to order your meal at the bar because of lack of waitrons, but the food will be great.

This year at the Jazz Fest, I was welcomed by natives who may have ignored a tourist in previous years. They thanked me, personally, for being there, much the way you would thank a casual friend who showed up at the funeral home when Mee-Maw died. Cops hugged me.

People will go back. Even if, like Fats, they have to walk.

On Oct.29.2006 at 12:40 AM
Bill Klingensmith’s comment is:

I agree with Michelle's comment: NOLA is more than Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. It is great to know that some parts survived with little water damage but the majority of the city is still striped to the studs. The people who have returned love their city. This type of dedication to making a community improve is outstanding and inspiring. The contribution to the arts and design significant.

This summer I did my own contribution to "help". I created this:
DRIVE PROJECT :: New Orleans.
It is an interactive map with 8,000 images of various neighborhoods. My contribution is: DESIGN FOR GOOD. This time spent in NOLA and working on the project has changed my perception on life. The piddling little quips that people complain about daily for a moment of discomfort mean nothing.

This project is my response to the 30 second media blurbs that have all but vanished since the event. ++Out of the news does not mean all is well.++ This article on the indian culture is a great. The collective "WE" have to keep this in our conciousness. New Orleans is "OUR" culture. It is all to often that the American population has little if no attachment to its own heritage. It is my belief that only the people of New Orleans and this country will be responsible of its recovery. It is obvious the government has this as a "Low" priority. Considering the silence in our recent election.

Remember:
"Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." JFK
This still stands true today. You can be patriotic without being perceived as a freak. Honor those who are your neighbors who have been ripped from their roots and are now trying to get life back on track.

Thanks for the article and the opportunity to contribute.

On Nov.14.2006 at 09:14 AM
Art’s comment is:

From the December 14, 2006 OffBeat Weekly Beat: "Wednesday at a press conference at the Zulu Headquarters, Shell, Festival Productions and AEG Live—Festival Productions’ partner in presenting the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—donated $250,000 to aid in the recovery of New Orleans, earmarking this money for the preservation of significant cultural organizations such as Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The donations are being administered by the Norman Dixon, Sr. Annual Second-Line Parade Fund, which last year paid for feathers and marabou to get over 100 Mardi Gras Indians on the streets and masking last year. $30,000 of the donation has been designated for the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club to underwrite the insurance costs of the Mardi Gras day parade. Another $30,000 goes to the Backstreet Cultural Museum to help with renovations."

On Dec.14.2006 at 04:31 PM
kevin turner’s comment is:

i oftain wondered how to become a indian, i,m a new orleans native of the algiers area and no one seems to know how to join .it will be a pleasure to assist in what ever area needed i know how to saw, can you help

On Jun.26.2007 at 06:16 PM
Mark A.’s comment is:

Kevin,
I'll answer you privately.
Mark

On Jun.29.2007 at 03:45 PM
Nicole’s comment is:

I am a fine art photographer that has a few beautiful images of the Mardi Gras Indians. I would like to sell some of these art images but am hoping to somehow find the subjects to obtain a model release from them. Does anyone have any idea how I could contact the head tribe organizers and see if they know the people in my pictures? I'm willing to offer them monetary compensation for the model release. Thank you!

On Jul.25.2007 at 12:17 PM
mark a.’s comment is:

Nicole, I just saw your post and I'll answer you privately.

On Aug.01.2007 at 06:47 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

I know you don't like sales business on this blog: in case any of you rich designer types are interested in buying some of the last authentic Black Indian art out of New Orleans-

Larry Bannock is selling some of his folk art "patches" to help him get his car functional again. I know, I know. you hate this. Well, damn.

Contact me if anyone is interested in purchasing some folk art. Sorry SU.

On Sep.16.2007 at 08:46 PM
Alan ’s comment is:

Mark,
I am interested in finding someone, anyone from the Mardi Gras Indian culture who would be willing to introduce their vanishing culture to a special group of Boy Scouts known as the Order of the Arrow. The Order of the Arrow is an honor society of seasoned Boy Scouts (13-18 usually) who perform cheerful service for others, and whose theme revolves about American Indian culture. They have a lodge banquet coming up in about a month in Westwego and would very much be interested in inviting someone to enjoy dinner with them who would help them learn about the art of making a new suit and what the Mardi Gras Indians are are about. This is a mostly-white group who probably have never been exposed to Mardi Gras Indian culture and I think it is an important opportunity for the two groups to intersect and learn from one another, especially given the post-Katrina environment of acceptance and inclusivity. Can you suggest someone?

On Dec.17.2007 at 12:27 PM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Alan,
Sure, I can help you. Call me at 404/843-3825 and we can connect this to someone.
thanks.
Mark

On Dec.17.2007 at 12:57 PM
W. H.’s comment is:

This is an interesting site. I didn't look to see when this was originally posted and I have not read all the comments,yet, but this is useful to me because I am doing my thesis on the Mardi Gras Indians and it is interesting to see how others view us. Presently, I am a displaced New Orleanian due to the failure of the levees. I have lived with the Mardi Gras Indians for over five decades. I have family members who mask. It is necessary to keep this culture alive. Though there are a lot of things that could and should change about the city, this is not one of them. This subculture is as important as the floats, beads, cups and throws of Mardi Gras, itself. The young people need to know about this. It is fast becoming a dying art.
Some things are worth holding on to. This is one.

On Jun.07.2008 at 09:29 AM
W. H.’s comment is:

This is an interesting site. I didn't look to see when this was originally posted and I have not read all the comments,yet, but this is useful to me because I am doing my thesis on the Mardi Gras Indians and it is interesting to see how others view us. Presently, I am a displaced New Orleanian due to the failure of the levees. I have lived with the Mardi Gras Indians for over five decades. I have family members who mask. It is necessary to keep this culture alive. Though there are a lot of things that could and should change about the city, this is not one of them. This subculture is as important as the floats, beads, cups and throws of Mardi Gras, itself. The young people need to know about this. It is fast becoming a dying art.
Some things are worth holding on to. This is one.

On Jun.07.2008 at 09:31 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

WH,
It takes some one from there to understand the cultural tradition that the Mardi Gras Indians represent. The power of their artistic expression has been an inspiration to me as an artist. If there's anything I can do to help, feel free to ask.
Amistad Research Center at Tulane University has two original paintings I've done: group portraits of 17 of the great chiefs.

On Jun.08.2008 at 09:02 AM