A lot of the finer details of Mardi Gras remain unknown because they are handled by secret societies – others are just rarer sights for your average visitor to the yearly celebration. Little seen and lesser known, Mardi Gras Indians have a fascinating history all their own worth looking into.
Mardi Gras Indians typically hail from the African-American communities of New Orleans’ inner city – so why do they dress as Indians for Mardi Gras?
Because of the history of racism and slavery, African-Americans were not originally made to feel all that welcome at Mardi Gras, so they began their own traditions for the holiday. Styling their own krewes after the local, Native American tribes who accepted runaway slaves into their societies, they named them with fanciful, made-up “Indian” names based upon the streets of their ward or gang.
Initially, many Mardi Gras Indians would use the day to settle scores between each other while masked and anonymous, causing violent confrontations often leading to injury or even death that the authorities felt helpless to stop. Now the rivalries are just for show, with the threatening gestures and wild, competitive boasting confined to entertaining displays during parade.
And what displays!
Beyond the chanting, singing, dancing, and one-upmanship between the tribes, there are the costumes. No one wears more serious or elaborate costumes than Mardi Gras Indians do: fantastic, hand-sewn, intricate designs utilizing hundreds of thousands of beads to illustrate dramatic images, plus brightly dyed ostrich plumes, sequins, velvet, and rhinestones, too. Some of these amazing creations take an entire year to create, can weigh as much as 150 pounds, and cost well into the thousands of dollars!
As colorful as it all is, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians may be fading, due in large part to the sheer cost of the costumery. What was once made from whatever was on hand has become so elaborate that few can afford the expense. Only time will tell.
Mardi Gras Indians have been an important – if somewhat hidden – part of Mardi Gras for well over a century but their contribution to the celebration may be the least seen and recognized – and could become a thing of the past. If you see some Mardi Gras Indians, count yourself as lucky!
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