Some people say the roots of the Mardi Gras Indians are buried in slavery, while others believe they originated with the earliest native people of Louisiana. Today, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans represent a living, breathing culture surrounded by feathers and woven in beads. It is a culture of pride and honor, ritualistic song and dance, spirituality and craftsmanship. On Mardi Gras morning across New Orleans from Uptown to the Ninth Ward, the Mardi Gras Indians emerge from their homes to the beating of drums and tambourines to parade their way through the streets to confront each other in ceremonial battle wearing intricately beaded suits covered in colorful ostrich plumes, glass beads, feathers, and rhinestones. The art that the Mardi Gras Indians create is some of the most important contemporary African diasporan art in our country. This multi-faceted, fully developed culture is over 200 years old and is still thriving in New Orleans today.
The Mardi Gras Indians (also known as the Black Masking Culture) of New Orleans represent a classic example of a hidden culture quietly serving the spiritual needs and interests of a tightly knit community. The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are a striking example of a cultural treasure which deserves recognition and appreciation as one of the most important forms of contemporary African diasporan art in our country. This unique subculture, which has been practicing in New Orleans since the 1800s, is composed of a diverse and highly complex group of people who keep alive a two century bond between African-Americans and Native Americans. Throughout their history Mardi Gras Indians have been oppressed, misunderstood, and misrepresented. Even today many individual members of “Indian gangs” know very little about their history beyond their own dynamic oral tradition, and cannot even imagine being considered culturally or artistically valuable. But they are indeed a classic example of a hidden culture quietly serving the spiritual needs and interests of a tightly knit traditional community, carrying on and preserving a complex ancestral tradition of music, art, and culture.
The history of the Mardi Gras Indians has been passed down orally through generations. Even within the Mardi Gras Indian community, there are many conflicting stories of how the Black Indians of New Orleans came to be. One common belief is that local Native American tribes sheltered enslaved Africans who had managed to run away, eventually fighting alongside them in the resistance against Anglo subjugation. Some Mardi Gras Indians honor their Black Indian roots as direct ancestors of Native Americans, while others believe the intermingling of Native Americans with Creoles, enslaved Africans, and free people of color in Congo Square brought about the merge. The bond between African-Americans and Native Americans dates back to the 1780s when enslaved people from all parts of Africa were transported to New Orleans as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Both the Native Americans and the enslaved Africans shared a reverence for the spirits of their ancestors, a strong belief in seasonal changes, and traditions which used ceremonial dress. There is strong evidence that the suits of modern day Mardi Gras Indians are a cross between the ritualistic dress worn among African tribes and Native American tribes.