The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.