Photo courtesy of Mardi Gras Indians site
By John Sinclair
One of the great perennial treats at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the appearance of the Mardi Gras Indians in all their colorful splendor. At JazzFest you may have the pleasure of witnessing rare on-stage performances by a total of 22 modern-day Mardi Gras Indian tribes, including:
The people in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods where the Indians hold sway are well versed in the annual ritual and rush eagerly forward to join in the fun, swelling to form the energetic "second line" that envelops, supports and propels the Wild Indian gangs to ever greater exploits of visual art, public song, and communal street dancing.
The Mardi Gras Indians revel in revealing their elaborate creations in beadwork, feathers and plumes inspired by the ceremonial and war suits and headdresses of the Plains Indians of the 19th century. They thrive in New Orleans today as the living manifestation of an age-old ritual, preserved and practiced by the descendants of African slaves held captive in America, which goes back to the perambulating societies of West Africa and their call-and-response chants, and to the secret societies of masked warriors which are common to both African and native American cultures.
Itís a ritual which continues to live in the mean streets of 21st-century New Orleans and in the hearts of the people of the most run-down, destitute, stripped-bare-and-left-for-dead underclass neighborhoods of the city, where the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras perennially represent the triumph of spirit, creativity, and beauty of song and dance over every obstacle placed in their arduous path.
Thereís nothing like seeing the Wild Indians in their natural habitat, emerging like eye-popping apparitions in all their magnificent finery out of the doorways of dilapidated inner-city houses and project apartments to strut and swagger down the middle of the beat-up streets where they struggle just like everyone else to make a living and somehow survive the crime, violence, joblessness and grinding poverty of their neighborhoods throughout the rest of the year. Thatís the real-life context of the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras, and year after year they manage to rise above the morass of daily life to make themselves over as creatures of immense power and beauty.
Every year, starting around Thanksgiving and continuing every Sunday evening until Mardi Gras, the members and followers of each Wild Indian gang meet up at their favorite neighborhood bar to conduct "Indian practice," a torrid ritual where the traditional chants are rehearsed and refreshed, new chants are introduced and prepared for the streets, the thrilling Indian dances and man-to-man confrontations are tried out and tested in action, old friendships are celebrated and warm new alliances may be formed.
The Indian practices are conducted or supervised by each tribeís Big Chief, who generally leads the singing and directs the course of action in this familiar setting. Other lead singers, either tribe members (Spy Boys, Flag Boys, Trail Chiefs, Wild Men) or second-line regulars and one-time Indians who know how it goes, spell the Big Chiefs throughout the evening, showing off their vocal prowess, firm grasp of the idiom, and strength of performance.
The finest singers below the rank of Big Chief are often moved to leave the gang they started with and strike out on their own to form new tribes, drawing followers from friends, family, and the immediate neighborhood who will meet each Sunday at a different bar and practice under the personal, moral, and musical leadership of the new Chief.
Thus the roster of Wild Indian tribes and the ranks of the singing Big Chiefs continue to grow in New Orleans, extending this unique African American tradition into the new millennium. Old-time Indian songs are shared by all the gangs, while newly-devised chants are picked up and passed by word of mouth from one Indian practice to another until you can hear them all over town.
The Mardi Gras Indian Nation has never been stronger nor more gloriously evident than today, surviving and thriving in the streets of the Crescent City like never before, keeping alive the culture and spirit of their African and Native American ancestors in spite of what would seem to be insurmountable odds, and conquering the spiritual deadness of contemporary civilization with the power and beauty of their artwork, songs, dances, and strength of character.
Mighty Kootie Fiyo on a Mardi Gras Day
If ya donít wanna play get the hell out the way!
© 2000 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
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