Big Chiefs Coming
Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians
Photo: Micanopy, circa 1838. Lithograph by Thomas McKenney and James Hall, from painting by Charles Bird King. Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida.
Black Indians who parade at Mardi Gras and several other times of the year are driven by a mythic sense of origins. Indian gangs pay homage to Native Americans who harbored fugitive African slaves and helped them seek freedom. The beaded patches and sewn illustrations on costumes celebrate a warrior myth of red men enacted by black men, and in recent years, black women as Indian queens.
Origins of the tradition, which most accounts date to the 1880s, became a disputed issue following Maurice Martinez’s 1976 documentary, Black Indians of New Orleans. The film melded riveting street footage to a narrative thread by the director, a 7th Ward Creole scholar, who held that intermarriage of African-Americans and Native Americans spawned the tradition. Blacks began “maskin’ Injun” because many of them were Indians, at least partially, already. In the decade after Louisiana’s grisly Reconstruction, in which violent white supremacists recaptured government, Carnival provided a ritual stage for parading in costumes steeped in symbolism of rebellion and freedom. In defending his thesis, Martinez pointed to “griffon,” a Colonial word in Louisiana denoting “black Indian,” a sign of genetic interweavings – what the French called “un metissage culturel” or mingled bloodlines.
But a genetic root for a tradition steeped in West African music and dance patterns is no easy sell. Moreover, most Mardi Gras suits emulate costume styles of Midwestern Plains Indians. Interviews with various Indians find recurrent references abound to mixed kinlines, but not as argument for a singular seedbed. Choctaw and Chitimacha communities in south Louisiana haven’t embraced Black Indians as their own.
Michael P. Smith, the photographer who spent decades in research and interviews for Mardi Gras Indians, argued that in the 1885 World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, a world’s fair before the name, the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show had a major impact on the popular culture; Plains Indian performers paraded in Mardi Gras that year. Smith avoided pinpointing a single source behind the beauty and spectacle of the Indians we know today.
We turn now to Chula Bungo! The Seminoles in New Orleans by Jerry Brock, hot off the press in The Jazz Archivist journal of Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive. (The online version has superb color illustrations.) A founder of WWOZ radio and historical researcher of laser-like intensity, Brock illuminates the Seminoles are, “made up from multiple Indian tribes, clans, Africans and people of mixed ethnicities who joined together for nearly a century (1763-1858) to revolt against aggressive southern expansionists, slavery and U.S. military forces.”
Brock doesn’t posit the Seminoles as source of Mardi Gras Indians, though one tribe, the Creole Osceolas, takes the name of a famous Seminole chief. Rather, he traces a chain of events popularizing Indians as precursor of the Mardi Gras spectacle. The Seminoles visited New Orleans in 1838. Brock: “Ironically, while a majority of public reports on the Seminoles refer to the Africans and people of African descent as slaves, military records suggest that Blacks were often leading the Indians, or that the two groups at least shared a common bond.” Some newspapers treated them as exotic celebrities. From an account of a Seminole wedding in New Orleans: “At the other end of the train, were the blissful twain who were about to be consolidated into one – the ceremony being conducted upon the plan of a Free Mason’s march, where the most important personages bring up the rear.” In years ahead what became commonly known as “Mardi Gras Indians” would create their own music and set their own pace. Mardi Gras would be enriched because of it.
Seminoles as Performer
After the Civil War, the Carrollton Times ran an advertisement for a “Grand Exhibition” – the shape of things to come – at an Uptown hall, June 17, 1868. “FIFTEEN SEMINOLE INDIANS! The entertainment consists of INDIAN SCENES, SONGS, SPEECHES, And WILD INDIAN DANCES! Programme, Long Dance, or Journey Dance, Drunkards Dance, Regions Song – Tom Wildcat and squaw, Wild Buffalo Dance, Green Corn Dance, Chula Bungo Dance, Bull Dance, Tick Dance. To conclude with the SCALPING SCENE. Admission 50 cents; children 25 cents. Doors open at 7 o’clock P.M. performance Commences at 8. (sic)”