Residing Legends: The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans
I’m sitting in a cluttered workshop in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood.
Surrounding me are plastic containers filled with beads and rhinestones of about every hue imaginable, elaborate feather headdresses, glue guns, oversize spools of thread, and fluffy lime-green tufts that suggest a Muppet has exploded. Along the back wall hang spectacular suits from Mardi Gras past, including a cobalt-blue beauty covered in beaded patches depicting Buffalo Soldiers.
At the center of this craftsman’s chaos sits Dow Edwards, spy boy, or scout, for the Mohawk Hunters, one of about three dozen “tribes” that represent the city’s Mardi Gras Indians.
Edwards is busy putting the finishing touches on his suit, which he has worked on an average of five hours a day for the past nine months. Though the materials alone cost thousands of dollars, he will wear the outfit just three times in public: when parading with the Mohawk Hunters on Mardi Gras, the evening of St. Joseph’s Day—celebrated city-wide on March 19—and “Super Sunday,” the Sunday that falls closest to St. Joseph’s Day.
“The first time I [encountered] the Mardi Gras Indians back in 1968,” Edwards recalls as he glues a strip of purple jingle bells to a pair of bright green boots, “I saw them dancing and singing and I thought, ‘Man, I want to be one of them!’”
Despite having been raised in Uptown, Edwards—a former New England Patriots wide receiver and Army airman who found a second calling as a lawyer—had never known anyone who had gained entry into the exclusive and famously secretive society. But in the days after Hurricane Katrina, he found his entrée when a secretary at his firm introduced him to her boyfriend Tyrone Casby, the big chief, or leader, of the Mohawk Hunters.
“The joy I had when I put my first suit on…there’s a certain sense of spirituality that comes from the long process of creation,” Edwards says. “I played professional football in stadiums packed with people cheering, but there’s nothing like being a Mardi Gras Indian.”
The Indians have long been the subject of mythology and mystique. Many historians trace the genesis of the tradition to the days of French and Spanish rule, when slaves would gather at Congo Square in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood to play traditional African folk music and dance and sing to blow off steam and celebrate their heritage.
Before slavery was outlawed in the United States (of which the city became a part in 1803) and for some time after, New Orleans’ African-American residents were excluded—formally and otherwise—from participating in mainstream Mardi Gras celebrations.
In response, the city’s black community developed its own Carnival traditions, including parades where rival gangs would “mask” as Native Americans, crafting colorful suits covered in fish scales or bottle caps to pay tribute to the indigenous peoples who had helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom in Louisiana’s bayous. On Mardi Gras day, when police were busy protecting the French Quarter, the tribes took to the streets of their neighborhoods to strut their stuff.
“There are stories about Indians taking their mama’s pearl necklaces and putting them on their suits because they wanted to be pretty,” Edwards says. “They wanted to get out there and mask on Mardi Gras just like everybody else.”
The Mardi Gras Indians came to the world’s attention in 1965, when New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups struck pop-music gold with “Iko Iko” (a cover of 1953’s “Jock-A-Mo,” by Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters, also of New Orleans). The lyrics describe a quintessential collision between two tribes, who exchange taunting chants:
“My flag boy and your flag boy
Were sittin’ by the fire
My flag boy told your flag boy,
‘I’m gonna set your flag on fire.’”
The spy boy’s job is to march ahead of his tribe along the parade route, acting as lookout, while the flag boy walks between the spy boy and the big chief, relaying messages between the two and—as the name suggests—carrying the gang’s flag.
Though these traditional roles are largely symbolic and ceremonial today, Edwards is old enough to remember when they were essential. He describes the Mardi Gras Indians of his youth as a backstreet culture with territorial rivalries that often led to bloody confrontations.
But by the early 1970s, several of the most powerful big chiefs—including Donald Harrison, Sr., of the Guardians of the Flame, Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, and Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias—came together to put an end to the violence and move the legendary African-American tradition into the New Orleans mainstream.
“[The big chiefs] decided our territories weren’t worth battling over because we didn’t own any of it,” Edwards says. “They said a chief’s job is to protect his tribe and make sure each Indian got home safe [and] changed our motto to ‘Kill ‘em dead with needle and thread.’”
There are any number of places to get a taste of the rich history of the Mardi Gras Indians, including the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, and the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum. But to truly understand the significance of the tradition in New Orleans, you’ll want to head to Central City’s A.L. Davis Park on Super Sunday for the start of the most anticipated parade of the year.
As Edwards walks toward the park in full regalia—a stunning lime-green, orange, and purple suit depicting fierce battles between rival Native American tribes, complete with matching shield, spear, and headdress—people across the street shout the three words every Mardi Gras Indian loves to hear: “You the prettiest!”
The scent of boiled crawfish and fresh beignets fills the air as the streets along the three-mile parade route fill with revelers. Some are content to watch from the sidelines, others walk, dance, or strut alongside the Indians, who chant phrases like “Shallow Water” and “Indian Red” to the beat of the second-line jazz as they preen and pose for pictures.
It’s a celebration of culture and community unlike all others, and, for Edwards, just what post-Katrina New Orleans needs.
“We still have some depressed neighborhoods in New Orleans,” he acknowledges. “When the Indians meander through their communities, they provide a sense of belonging, a sense of self. It’s about uplifting and empowering [people] to feel good about themselves rather than feeling ‘less than.’”
By the end of the parade, his point has been proven in spades. As admirers crowd around Edwards, one youngster of about 12 years of age shyly awaits his turn to shake his hand. “I want to be like you when I grow up,” he says.
“Do you want to be an Indian like me, or a lawyer like me?” Edwards asks.
“Both!” The boy grins.
“There was a point [when] we thought this culture was going away,” Edwards says later, relaxing on the couch back at home. “Mardi Gras Indians are neighborhood-associated, [and] Katrina dispersed everybody.” But the tradition, and the people who keep it alive, rallied and adapted, adding a new chapter to a long history.
“As the late Bo Dollis once said, the Mardi Gras Indians are the soul of Mardi Gras.”
Freelance writer Bret Love is the cofounder of Green Global Travel, along with his wife, Mary Gabbett. Follow their adventures in ecotourism on Twitter @GreenGlobalTrvl.
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