The first Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Creole Wild West, was formed in the mid-to late 1880s. Cultural historian Maurice Martinez, who also made the first in-depth Mardi Gras Indian film (The Black Indians of New Orleans, 1976) is emphatic in identifying the inception of Mardi Gras Indian tradition. “How did the Mardi Gras Indian tradition get started? In the 1880s, a young man of Indian and African descent masked on Carnival Day as an Indian. This man was the great uncle of Allison “Tootie” Montana, A former Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe.”
The Mardi Gras Indians exemplify the creolization at the heart of the pan-Caribbean and North American influences converging to create a fresh aesthetic is similar to what occurred in the West Indies. And although the Amerindian form appears with variations in Toronto, Brooklyn, London, Trinidad, St. Kitts-Nevis,Brazil,Cuba, Jamaica, Bermuda, and the Bahamas, nowhere else is it accompanied by quite the same musical refrains, aesthetic form, and artistic technique that characterized New Orleans’ Black Indians.
Some scholars argue that New Orleans is the most artistic manifestation of a cultural phenomenon common to the Caribbean basin. Art historian Ute Stebich’s writing in the Brooklyn Museum’s catalogue for the Haitian Art exhibition suggests that Mardi Gras Indians were central to Haitian celebrations. No carnival parade is complete without a group of Indians. Indian costumes are the most magnificent of all, exemplifying the Haitians’ sense of color and the work and love that goes into the detailed planning of masquerades. While it is difficult to argue for one national group over another, certainly the development is larger and more pronounced in New Orleans (with sometimes as many as twenty tribes from the 1880s on) than in any of the other Caribbean-basin regions where Mardi Gras Indians are celebrated.
Why New Orleans? On the one hand New Orleans is uniquely Caribbean rather than North American in its early history and cultural development, and as a result is the only place in the United States where Mardi Gras is celebrated as a major holiday similar to other parts of the western hemisphere–Mobile, Alabama, actually has an older Mardi Gras celebration but it is much less developed in both size and community participation at all class and ethnic levels. On the other hand, New Orleans also shares the cultural history of the United States, and Native peoples are more interwoven into the cultural fabric of the United States than in other countries in the Americas.
Clearly, the historical background suggests that the idea of “masking Indian” is over two hundred years old. Rather than an anomaly, the Mardi Gras Indians are in fact simply a manifestation of a much broader and older cultural trend than is often supposed. Rather than unique to New Orleans, Mardi Gras Indians are better understood as representative of the historic merging of African and Native peoples–a merger which happened throughout the so-called “new world” both because of as well as in spite of African enslavement and Native genocide.
This essay was originally published in an exhibit catalog by the New Orleans Museum of Art for the 1997 exhibit, “He’s the Prettiest:” A Tribute to Big Chief Allison “Tootie”Montana’s 50 Years of Mardi Gras Indian Suiting. Kalamu ya Salaamis a writer/editor/filmmaker and founder of NOMMO Literary Society, a New Orleans-based creative writing workshop.