The Mardi Gras Indians

Date: 
Thu, 1732-02-28

*The Mardi Gras Indians are celebrated on this date (Fat Tuesday) in 1732. These African Americans participate as a cultural foundation of New Orleans and Mardi gras history. The Mardi Gras Indians are as much a part of that secret society as any other carnival organization. The heritage of the Mardi Gras Indians is an African based long and hard road, starting in late 1600's with the Indian Village of Tchoutchuoma, near the north gate of the colonial place of what has become the New Orleans French Quarter.

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans, and named it "Pointe du Mardi Gras" when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established "Fort Louis de la Louisiane" (which is now Mobile) in 1702. Native Indians were first taken as slaves according to records. Some were Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Blackfoot. Even then, there was thought of Mardi Gras, as the white men of the colony of mobile, formed a Boeuf Graf Society.  This traditional revelry of "Boeuf Gras," or fatted calf, followed France to her colonies. Indians did not make good slaves, their love of freedom was so severe they would run into the bayou or disappear into other camps which the French and later the Spanish wouldn't dare venture into.

A call went out the governor to bring African slaves to the area, since they were known to be better workers and could not survive in the swamp.  In 1719, the first African Slaves arrived for sale at the port of New Orleans.  Some would be sold here. Most were held in the slave pens on what is now Camp Street. For two years things were kept in order, as the African, West Indies, and Haitian slaves were trained in running plantations. Slowly, the slaves and the Indians began to understand each other's language, and this improved their co-operative efforts to work in harmony together. It also gave them the way to plan escapes. In 1722, the first known escape of a slave from a plantation, took place. It is said that tribes such as the Choctaw, Seminoles and Chickasaws in Louisiana were responsible for freeing some of the Africans from slavery.  With Indian help, the Africans learned to survive off the land and lived in the forest camps that came to be known as Maroon Camps.

African relationships with Indians were frightening for whites as the last thing that the colony needed was Indians and African slaves becoming allies. They were intentionally kept from one another while in bondage. The Europeans had good cause to be frightened, because in 1729 most of the 280 African Slaves owned by a company of the West Indies, join with the Natchez Indians in what became known as the “Natchez Revolt.”   It was an attempt by the Indians to prevent their sacred lands from being seized, as the French tried to develop their beginning tobacco industry. The Indians promised the African slaves freedom, in exchange for their help, and along with 176 Indian braves, the force attacked their captors. But they were betrayed by one of the sailors of the West Indies Company that had accidentally overheard the plans. The revolt was put down with amazing savageness. Some of the slaves were beheaded and their heads mounted on pikes and placed on the levee, to frighten and warn others as to what would happen, if it ever happened again. This show of force was so successful, that no other attempts were recorded for two years. The French colonist, convinced that all was now under control, relaxed the rules and the First recorded reference to slaves dancing at gatherings held on the plantations were found in the archives, in 1732.  

African Slaves were highly valued at this time in New Orleans history, as were the free men of color for their considerable trade skills. The colony, still under French rule, had a sort of live and let live approach to slavery, so much so, that slaves were “given the weekend off " to earn money and go into town. Negroes had the trust of the French, so much, that some slaves and the free men of color, were formed into a fighting force of mulatto troops, to defend the fort in case of attack by Indians. Two years later, in 1736, Governor Beinville and his Negro troops attacked the English and their Indian allies in the “Chickasaw War”. Simon, a Free Negro who accompanied Bienville, led a company of 45 to 50 free Negroes, in that battle.  Indeed trust had been established by the Negroes, in order to gain some of the advantages freedom could bring. So much so, that in 1744, the "Place de Negroes", (later known as Congo Square) became the established place to meet. Still in existence Blacks of all shades would transact business, get news, etc, on Sundays, for free men of color, and later for the area slaves, as they began to sell, and produce other goods to accumulate money and buy their freedom. These slaves would gather by the hundreds on Sunday afternoons to sing and dance in their traditional style at Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park). 

But the slaves had not abandoned their thirst for freedom. They had formed a plan and meeting in the square enabled them to perfect their plans. But this would prove to be time consuming and slow. They relied on the Indians to help negotiate the swamps and continued to cultivate their relationship with them, even establishing a sort of Underground Railroad to the maroon camps where possible. It was at this time the Africans were very thankful to have such allies, and in 1746 archives begin to refer to slaves dressing as Indians as the Africans began to celebrate Mardi Gras in their unique customary fashion. These were in all likelihood, the first known “Black Indians ".  Slaves escaped wherever they could and were tracked as far as the camps, in many instances.

In 1771, the Free Men of color were now holding parties in the back areas of the cities and in the Maroon Camps, during Mardi Gras celebrations, and still dressing with the Indians, while adopting their ways. Because of the mass escapes plus and that some of these Creoles were sneaking in to the balls the Spanish administration of the city at the Cabildo, granted a prohibition of black persons from being masked, wearing feathers, and attending night balls. This only forced them to now dress and roam only in the black neighborhoods and Congo Square. In 1783, free men of color formed the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association for insurance and social aide to Blacks. This was the first of hundreds of such organizations that would be the cornerstone of most of the Black walking clubs, and Carnival Organizations of present. Then in 1795, twenty-three conspirators were hanged when Spanish authorities allegedly discovered plans for a slave uprising from the free men of color, who themselves, owned slaves.

From 1783 to 1803, under Spanish/French rule, free Negro's and free men of color, were an integral part of the colonial militia. Their peacetime duties were patrolling the streets of New Orleans after dark maintaining Law and Order. This had allowed them to trade off favors for money and a chance at freedom. But the 1803 Louisiana Purchase toke place and American Troops toke possession of the colony. Things were never the same for the slaves, Creoles, and free men of color, after the troops arrived. With the acquisition of Louisiana, Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the fledgling U.S. and made it a world power. Later, 13 states or parts of states were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase territory. The laws changed over night, and no more slaves were to be set free. Americans acted very nasty as opposed to the French and Spanish. To top it off, the Americans didn't allow any Indians to enter the city. The first sign of real trouble was in 1804, when fights began to break out about whether French or English music is to be played at the Carnival balls. A new ordinance required two policemen to be present and no weapons to be carried at the balls. For 6 years things got progressively worse for the African slaves on the plantations.

The year 1811 brought the greatest slave revolt in American history in St. John Parish, as an estimated 500 field hands walked off the upriver plantations. But they were sandwiched between Federal troops moving down from Baton Rouge, giving chase, and the Battalion of soldiers made up of Free Men of color. They were trapped. Though well organized, they had been betrayed before they could get to New Orleans, with the battle ending in Jefferson Parish in what is today, Kenner, La. The revolt was put down savagely, by 1 company of Mulattos, troops (consisting of Indians, Negro's, Creoles, and free men of color) Some of the surviving Negroes, and Creoles slaves began to tell who was involved in the revolt after repeated beatings. This lead to a general feeling of uneasiness, and charges of insurrection being brought not only against the actual participants, but any slave thought to be a trouble maker, whether he took part or not. It took upwards to 3 years to find all the accused slaves; even then some still managed to escape. Because of the fear generated by the 1811 slave revolt; all gatherings by slaves and free men of color were prohibited. This ended all masking by the Indians in Congo square. They had to alter their plans, routes and dates to remain undiscovered. This sent the Mardi Gras Indians into deep hiding. But the art was still practiced, and by now the costumes for which they are extremely famous for began to appear.  It wouldn't be until 1835, that the Black Indians would resurface, in the known archives.

The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised, in large part, of the Blacks of New Orleans' inner cities. They have paraded for well over two centurys; yet perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition. Typical Mardi Gras organizations will form a "krewe”, which names their parade after a particular mythological hero or Greek god. The ranking structure of a Mardi Gras Krewe is a parody of royalty: King, Queen, Dukes, Knights and Captains, or some variation on that theme. Many more established Krewes allowed membership by invitation only. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation and few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. The Black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their "Krewes" are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang. The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the cruelty of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when Blacks made a break for freedom; they have never forgotten this support. In the past, Mardi Gras was a violent day for many Mardi Gras Indians. It was a day often used to settle scores. The police were often unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding Mardi Gras events in the city...where the streets were crowded and everyone was masked. This kept many families away from the “parade,” and created much worries and concern for a mother whose child wanted to join the "Indians."

Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since before the 19th century. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as fellow outcasts of society, and blacks circumventing some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians. An appearance in town of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the 1880s was said to have drawn considerable attention and increased the interest in masking as Indians for Mardi Gras. When Caribbean communities started to spring up in New Orleans, their culture was incorporated into the costumes, dances and music made by the "Indians". In the late 19th century and early years of the 20th century the tribes had a reputation for violent fights with each other. This part of Mardi Gras Indian history is immortalized in James Sugar Boy Crawford's Jock O Mo (better known and often covered as Iko Iko), based on their taunting chants. The song "Iko Iko" mentions two Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

As the 20th century progressed, physical confrontation gave way to assertions of status by having better costumes, songs, and dances. It has been remarked that generations ago when Mardi Gras Indians came through neighborhoods people used to run away, now people run towards them for the colorful spectacle. The tradition of male-only tribes ended in the late 20th century as females began appearing as well. The HBO series Treme features one tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, the Guardians of the Flame, in one of the major plot lines weaving through the series, featuring preparations, the parades as well as strained relationships with the police department.

Reference:
Xavier University of Louisiana Thurgood Marshall Middle Magnet School New Orleans, Louisiana.

Mardi Gras New Orleans