Mardi Gras Indians | New Orleans, LA

Big Chief Trouble Nation Mardi Gras Indian by Mark Gstohl, CC Attribution

Tracing their roots back to a time when American Indians helped shield runaway african slaves, the Mardi Gras Indians are among the most colorful and mysterious of New Orleans’ cultural phenomena , dating back to the late 1800’s.  Their fantastic costumes, modeled after Native American ceremonial dress, are unforgettable hand-sewn creations of intricate beadwork and dramatic images which rank among the nation’s best folk art.  Often worn just once, the costumes take an entire year to create, with hundreds of thousands of beads and feathers sewn on by hand.

Golden Star Hunters by Derek Bridges, CC Attribution

The traditional music of the Mardi Gras Indians is played with congas, tambourines and belled wrist and ankle bands. The distinction of rhythms, which were once more specific to tribal practices in different regions of Africa, were somewhat blurred by the turn of the century. But the preservation of the intricate rhythms was critical to the development of jazz and funk, which the Mardi Gras Indians were instrumental in preserving and popularizing. Some of the more popular and well known music groups today include the Wild Magnolias, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the Golden Eagles.

Mardi Gras Indians by Tulane Public Relations, CC Attribution

There are more than 50 Indian “gangs,” each representing a particular New Orleans neighborhood, and each marching to the beat of their own drummer. Through the early years of the 20th century, the tribes had a reputation for violent fights with each other. However, as the 20th century progressed, physical confrontation gave way to assertions of status by having better suits, songs, and dances.

Red Hawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians by Derek Bridges, CC Attribution

With a formal hierarchy of chiefs, spy boys and other unique monikers, the Indians parade on special days including Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night or one of two “Super Sundays” in March. Gracing the streets of New Orleans neighborhoods in friendly competition over which chief is the “prettiest,” you may catch sight of the Indians at traditional gathering places like Shakespeare Park, at the corner of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street uptown; at the intersection of Orleans and North Claiborne Avenues, near Armstrong Park; at Hunter’s Field at the corner of North Claiborne and St. Bernard Avenues; or at the Backstreet Cultural Museum ­ where the history and costumes are displayed ­ at 1116 St. Claude St. in the heart of the historic Treme neighborhood.