Amid all the color and drama of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras carnival season, one contingent stands out head and feathers above the rest: the city’s Black Masking Indians.
These striking groups, sometimes referred to as Mardi Gras Indians, consist of several dozen individual tribes that flood the streets with a flurry of sequins and beads three times—on St. Joseph’s Night (March 19), Mardi Gras day, and Super Sunday (the third Sunday of March).
The collectives are split into Uptown tribes, like the Wild Magnolias or the Golden Blades, and Downtown tribes such as the Ninth Ward Comanche Hunters. They parade through the city, combining hypnotic chants and thundering tambourines into what Pableaux Johnson, a photographer who’s documented them since 2009, calls “a full-bore sensory experience.”
Or, as Chief Shaka Zulu of the Golden Feather Hunters tribe put it during an enlightening talk at AFAR Experiences Mardi Gras: “We go onto the streets of New Orleans and we play war games.”
A yearlong labor of love The impressive outfits worn by the Black Masking Indians are the result of some 12 months of painstaking hard work. Each piece can encompass thousands and thousands of glass beads—each smaller than a grain of rice—hand sewn into the garment.
The tribes’ sewing style differs depending on which part of town its members hail from. Uptown Indians sew flatter pieces, referring to their work as “patches” and using ostrich feathers, according to Chief Zulu. For his tribe, it’s more of a three-dimensional approach: “The piece sits on the piece that sits on the piece.” Often the latter group focuses on African or abstract motifs, and turkey feathers are used instead of ostrich, along with lots of sequins.
There are three elements to presenting oneself as an Indian, Chief Zulu says. Firstly, masking. “It’s an African tradition. Once you put a mask on, you’re not a person any more,” he says. “You become the energy or entity of what it is you’re masking.” The second is procession, as in moving through the streets of New Orleans. The third is ritual, which is realized by the long process of hand-beading and hand-sewing the suits.
A long cultural history Each group is referred to as a tribe, or gang, or nation (the terms are interchangeable, Chief Zulu says). Within each tribe there are a number of roles: Chief, Queen, Wildman, Flagboy, and Spyboy. For instance, Spyboys are positioned up front, keeping an eye out for other tribes. They pass messages back to the Flagboys, who then relay them to the Chief.
The roots of this tradition stretch back several hundred years, to the days of French rule in Louisiana in the early 1700s, when slaves trying to escape were helped by indigenous people.
“Our culture is very unique,” Chief Zulu says, “because not all of us got here from the slave trade. Many of us have a history of being part of this culture for many years before that . . . so this culture’s mainly about enslaved African people paying homage to the indigenous people for helping us during that period.”
The Black Masking Indians blend elements of indigenous culture, like the feathers and headdresses, with those of African traditions such as beads and masking. Music, of course, is a vital ingredient, as is the French Code Noir, the decree laying out the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire, which had a big impact according to Chief Zulu.
“A few articles stood out for us,” he says. “One: you had to be Catholic. That’s why Louisiana has the largest concentration of African American Catholics in the country. Another was that you couldn’t work on Sunday. That whole day was like a free day, when many things happened. We had dances brought from Africa, we were able to go to church, drums were taken in because we were speaking language on the drum . . . tambourines were a rhythmic instrument with a spiritual connotation.”
From there, European horns were added to the musical mix and the action shifted to Congo Square—where Sunday gatherings started to give birth to early jazz and traditions that have been carried forward to the gatherings of today. Black Masking Indians joined the Mardi Gras party in the 1880s.
Preserving a legacy Until the 1950s, Indians would destroy their own hard work after the festivities, according to Chief Zulu. “Ash Wednesday came and we burned the suit,” he says. “Why? The culture started out as resistance, so we didn’t want to have evidence of the culture.”
He adds, “The whole process of doing the ritual was the sewing. Once you’ve done the ritual, the suit doesn’t mean anything any more.” Other reasons cited by practicing Chiefs for retiring suits include the degradation of the organic materials used and the desire to introduce new and impressive efforts each year.
As the 21st century continued, though, “these suits started leaving New Orleans and traveling around the world with bands like the Wild Magnolias and The Neville Brothers,” and things changed.
Nowadays they’re often preserved for posterity. His suits have ended up everywhere: in a penthouse suite in a Ritz Carlton; in the Netherlands; in NOLA’s Golden Feather gallery. He’s created a stage production called Voices of Congo Square to tell the Indians’ story in their own words. “This culture is part of our lives,” he says. “This is not what we do. We actually live this culture.”
Chief Zulu is a member of the New Orleans chapter of Better Family Life, a nonprofit that aims to “build strong families and vibrant communities by providing hope, comprehensive services and meaningful opportunities.” He’s also worked with community nonprofit LEAF, to set up a fund for feathers for Indians that need assistance.
Several Black Masking Indian tribes will process through New Orleans’s Jazz Fest at the end of April and early May.