Most people encounter Mardi Gras Indians on the streets when these standard bearers of a uniquely New Orleans cultural ritual hold parades. But this summer a group of young students got a personal and in-depth look at Mardi Gras Indian traditions in the classroom, thanks to a new program at Xavier University. 

NEWS BEAT: Iko Iko in the classroomDuring an intensive, eight-week summer school program, the students, aged 11 to 14, explored the rich visual traditions, history and cultural impact of the Indians, a black tradition that blends American Indian and African-Caribbean influences and is best known for the stunning feather and beadwork suits worn by its participants.

“We wanted to do this because we recognized Mardi Gras Indian culture as one of the most distinctive art forms in the city,” says Shawn Vantree, director of Xavier’s Community Arts Program. 

The decorative suits each Indian makes by hand are a cornerstone of the tradition but are expensive and extremely time consuming to produce. Through the summer program, however, young people learn first hand why the tradition remains a vital part of the community. 

“Some of the kids love it. They take their sewing home every night to keep working on it, they can’t get enough,” Vantree says.

The course also included a dash of computer skills with on-line research as well as lessons about the diversity of tribal culture. The focal point, though, were visits throughout the summer from Mardi Gras Indian leaders, including Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters and Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Star Hunters.

Bannock, a state registered master craftsman in Mardi Gras Indian beadwork, has hosted many educational sessions for children at area schools and says the experience is a great way for young people to learn about and draw pride from the indigenous culture all around them.

“We’ve been doing this for more than a 100 years but for a lot of that time it’s been kept quiet and almost secret. Now, it’s coming out a little bit and more people are seeing what we’re all about,” says Bannock.

While Hurricane Katrina scattered some Mardi Gras Indian tribe members and caused severe economic hardship, Vantree says the disaster has also focused attention on the value of such cultural traditions and inspired support for their preservation. For instance, Xavier’s program is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and was one of only 25 programs across the nation awarded the agency’s Summer Schools in Arts grant. – I.M.