By this column’s infallible count, 22 Mardi Gras Indian gangs will perform over the three days of the first weekend at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. A striking number, when you consider that for many years the standard feature story on the Indians referred to “some two dozen tribes.”
The Indians follow a line of cultural memory that stretches back to costumed dances of the enslaved at Congo Square. Jump-cut: a Chicago Tribune article after Katrina wondered if the Indians and other tradition-bearers had been wiped away forever. Yet in the years since the flood, the Indians have surged. Nola.com/The Times-Picayune estimated more than 90 tribes in a 2017 piece on the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame – an organization spearheaded by Guardians of the Flame Maroon Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson.
Maroon queens, big queens and a hall of fame reflect the heightened solidarity of an urban warrior tradition once associated with internal rivalries and hard clashes with NOPD. When Tootie Montana, the veteran Big Chief of Yellow Pocahontas, died of a heart attack in 2005, while testifying in City Council chambers against police brutality, politicians were aghast, the tradition gained a martyr and more young men, and women began sewing costumes.
Indians’ costumes offer a kaleidoscopic view of the roots culture at a given point in time. The images captured by Michael P. Smith and Syndey Byrd, among many other photographers from the 1970s to the 1990s hold tiny pearls in the Native American motifs the beaded breastplates and aprons signified.
Today, a pronounced African motif marks certain suit-makers, notably Victor Harris, Spirit of the Fi-Yi-Yi and Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, whose beadwork resembles West African face masks with a Cubist intensity.
In a new ethnographic study, “Rhythm Ritual & Resistance: Africa is Alive in the Black Indians of New Orleans,” Robin Ligon-Williams draws a series of parallels between the beadwork, music and body language of the Indians and West African tribal traditions, a shared cultural memory.
Andrew Wiseman, a Ghanaian of the Ewe people, and a ceremonial voodoo drummer for Guardians of the Flame, tells the writer: “You can take people out of Africa, but you cannot take Africa out of the people.”
He points to the beading use for the regalia of African kings and queens as similar to the designs in black Indian outfits. Elsewhere in the text, Ligon-Williams includes photographs of Big Chief Alfred Doucette, a renowned Indian artist. His great-great grandfather “was a shipbuilder,” he tells her. “He was part Choctaw Indian.” The author’s photograph of Doucette’s beaded apron shows Africans on a shore, as a white man in a boat heads toward them from a ship – the beginning of enslavement and the Middle Passage to America.
“Rhythm Ritual & Resistance” is a gift to the tradition the author explores – costumes as performance art, and as narrative art. One intriguing parallel shows an egungun masked dancer of the Yoruba tradition in Nigeria, in a ritual robe with tiers of beaded imagery of birds, and Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters with a Indian scenes on his costume and headdress. The costume patterns share a striking symmetry, the images speak of each tradition.