I’ve heard of flowers so rare and beautiful that they only really show themselves one day a year. The Mardi Gras Indians are like those rare flowers, elusive and spectacular. “Super Sunday,” coordinated with St. Joseph’s day, is the day the Indians bloom into color-saturated plumage and intricately beaded works of artistic storytelling.
There are over 30 tribes of Indians who fall into 2 major groups, the Uptown and the Downtown. Uptown tribes create mostly 2 dimensional beaded and sequined works. The Downtown tribes create more 3 dimensional suits and panoramas and use more rhinestones.
The history is sketchy but the Indians seem to have been parading since at least the mid-1800’s. Some say the relationship between the Africans and the Native Americans came from their shared lot as minorities in the age of slavery. Some say that Africans “passed” as Native Americans to escape some of the worst of the racism present at the time. Many say that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to town in the 1880’s and inspired masking as Indians for show. Most agree that the Native Americans participated in the Underground Railroad and the Africans felt gratitude for their freedom so created the parade as a tribute to those who assisted them.
At the turn of the century, the tribes became known for their yearly violent fights but over time, the physical competitiveness gave way to battles of costumes and dances and songs. In the last 30 years (not sure when), women began costuming also.
The suits weigh up to 150 pounds and cost up to $5000. They can take up to a year to design, construct and bead. Some people even begin designing the next year’s suit as they finish working on the current one. Each Indian constructs his own suit, though family and friends may pitch in. In the past, old suits were deconstructed and parts were reused. As the costumes have become more elaborate and expensive, fewer Indians exist and the suits have become rare enough to become museum and collector pieces.
Though it may look like more madness in the streets, there is order. A Spy Boy parades out front, followed by a Flag Boy who uses his flag (now mostly Chief Sticks) to communicate between the Spy Boy and the Chief. Between the Flag Boy and the Chief is the Wild Man who keeps the streets clear.
I, like many Americans, am part Native American – 1/16 Cherokee, to be exact. That’s enough to make my dad eligible for a casino, if I’m not mistaken. I know nothing of that heritage, was taught none of those customs. I know none of the language, the food, the values and traditions that governed my great-great-grandmother’s life. Maybe she would be happy to see that her mix-race children went on to share the “American Dream.” Maybe she would weep for all that wasn’t carried forward. I know nothing of her other than a faded schoolgirl’s photo. But, I do know that I delighted in seeing a through-line from the first culture of the America to the present. And I felt the creativity and indomitable nature of slaves, dragged from their own culture and adopting some customs of those with whom they felt kinship.
Every Sunday for almost 10 years, my dear friend since high school, Angela, and I have enjoyed what we dubbed, “Craft Sunday.” It’s no Super Sunday, but we would visit, listen to 70’s music and craft – usually crochet or knitting or sometimes making elaborate ornaments for Christmas. Looking at the workmanship that went into the Indians’ suits, I thought of my many Craft Sundays, what a bond they created between Angela and I, how many beautiful things we made, the sense of accomplishment and whimsy the crafts gave us. Frankly, I miss Craft Sunday more than just about any other thing I miss about Los Angeles. Seeing these über-masculine warrior men in bright plumage, I couldn’t help picturing them hunched over a patch of fabric, painstakingly affixing bead after bead after bead after bead…
The tedious dedication to making something unique and beautiful was something I could fully relate to, feel, understand.
I hope my video captures even a measure of the beauty of this cultural moment, another amazing part of the gumbo that is the history of this city. For those of you with short attention spans, at least check out the photo montage at the end.
Here’s a brief report and an interview with the Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters.