What You Should Know About the Mardi Gras Indians
For more than a century, New Orleans' Black residents have donned Native-inspired attire to celebrate Carnival
February 22, 2023
When Mardi Gras Indians parade down the streets of New Orleans during the city's annual Carnival celebrations, onlookers experience a whirlwind of sensory stimulation. Dressed in handcrafted, Native American-inspired "suits," participants chant and sing call-and-response songs, punctuating these vocals with the sounds of tambourines, cowbells, drums and other percussion instruments. The energy in the air is electric, whether the Indians are dancing or staging friendly competitions with rival "tribes," as the dozens of social groups are known.
Despite its name, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is a distinctly African American one (a fact that has sparked questions of whether the moniker is appropriate and, more broadly, if the practice is a form of cultural appropriation). The most popular theory suggests its roots stretch back to the late 19th century, when Black New Orleanians started dressing up as Native Americans to pay homage to the Indigenous people who'd helped them escape from slavery and survive in the Louisiana wilderness. But the Indians' exact origins are the subject of debate, as much of the relevant history was passed down orally.
For much of their existence, the Indians were an insular, secretive and loosely defined coalition known chiefly to the Black community. While the tribes have entered the public eye in recent decades, they still keep some secrets to themselves. Before masking, or donning eye-catching custom suits and gathering in the streets, participants must learn songs and their meaning, lingo, signals, and-above all-how to embody the Mardi Gras Indian spirit.