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88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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Mardi Gras Indians!?

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Synthesizing African, Caribbean and American folkways, Mardi Gras Indians are an institution in New Orleans dating back as far back as the 1830s. As racial repression intensified in the post-Reconstruction era, hardening the color line governing participation in "mainstream" Mardi Gras festivities, organized groups of black and mixed-race celebrants masking as Indians took to neighborhood backstreets on Fat Tuesday. These Mardi Gras Indians, as they came to be known, identified with Native Americans, in part because they shared a common experience of subjugation during slave days and in part because tribes indigenous to Louisiana provided refuge to runaway slaves.  At one time, rivalries among Mardi Gras Indian tribes or “gangs” (usually defined by neighborhoods) often turned violent. But these days, the competitive aspects of their revelry revolve around singing, dancing and costuming. The process of making a Mardi Gras Indian “suit,” which can take up to a year and cost thousands of dollars, brings families and communities together in a collaborative artistic endeavor.

The Wild Magnolias "New Suit"

 

The results can be stunning: the vibrant colors of dyed ostrich, coque and marabou feathers, which recall the ceremonial attire of Plains Indians, are complimented by intricate, pictorial beadwork—the stylistic origins of which can be traced back to West Africa and the Caribbean—or sculptural (raised-relief) designs set off with dazzling arrays of beads and crystals. On Mardi Gras, after spending the early part of the day roaming the streets of their respective neighborhoods, various tribes, each led by a Big Chief, meet up and engage in ritualized confrontations. And like everything in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, its been immortalized in song; most famously, by Professor Longhair on his song “Big Chief.”

Professor Longhair "Big Chief"

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