Saving New Orleans' Culture

There was plenty to worry about in the days after Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, survival being first on the list. Not too many notches down, however, especially in New Orleans, was saving the culture. New Orleans is a town that oozes with elements of character, many of which could be considered part of a unique culture. When the chefs, musicians and artists fled the city, many wondered if they took with them the culture, some of which would be practiced in other cities but would never be the same. Like jazz, much of what becomes culture starts in the streets, as it did when the musical improvisations of poor blacks and struggling Italians began to mingle. Being an outcast can have an enormous bonding effect. Early blacks in New Orleans also found some kinship with area Choctaws. They too were out of the mainstream. The cultures blended, with the most visual manifestation being the Mardi Gras Indians. For male blacks this was a chance to be a part of a group and to direct talents in a creative way. The feathery costumes were influenced by the style of the Plains Indians, whom they saw perform at traveling Wild West shows. From the local men’s Afro-Caribbean heritage evolved a music form that was itself a Smithsonian-worthy bit of culture. Sing “Iko-Iko,” and you’re talking the language of the Indians.

By the time of Katrina, the number of Indian tribes was on the wane, but something happens to culture when it is threatened. It proves to be resilient.

There was so much worry about losing culture in post-Katrina New Orleans that in a sense it became stronger. The chefs returned; so did the musicians and the artists, as well as people who moved to the city because they wanted to be a part of the revival.

Once the most private of Carnival-related groups, the Mardi Gras Indians transcended the back streets to become a global symbol of the recovery. The challenges of an Indian chief were even a plotline on the HBO series Treme.

Not only are the Indians surviving, but there is also a new generation on the way, including the boy pictured here, possibly a Big Chief-to-be. He will be raised in a world that prizes showmanship, design, music and tradition. The culture is giving him a head start in life.

There are some places where Mardi Gras rituals (including parades and balls) are merely imitated; there are other places where they are part of a genuine evolutionary process. For the former to happen, the latter had to happen before. It is a legacy of culture that, if it is successful, someone will one day create an inexpensive plastic version.

Down in New Orleans the recovery continues. Should you be in the right place at the right time on Mardi Gras morning, you might see the Mardi Gras Indians. If there is a young boy in the group, look into his eyes. You might see the culture’s future.

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