Collectively, their organizations are called “tribes”. There are about 38 tribes which range in size from half a dozen to several dozen members. The groups are largely independent, but a pair of umbrella organizations loosely coordinates the Uptown Indians and the Downtown Indians.
In addition to Mardi Gras Day, many of the tribes also parade on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19) and the Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph’s Day (“Super Sunday”). Traditionally, these were the only times Mardi Gras Indians were seen in public in full regalia. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began the practice of hiring tribes to appear at the Festival as well. In recent years it has become more common to see Mardi Gras Indians at other festivals and parades in the city.
Notwithstanding the popularity of such activities for tourists and residents alike, the phenomenon of the Mardi Gras Indians is said to reflect both a vital musical history and an equally vital attempt to express internal social dynamics.
In 1740, New Orleans’ Congo Square was a cultural center for African music and dance. New Orleans was more liberal than many Southern cities, and on Sundays African slaves gathered to sing folk songs, play traditional music, and dance. The lively parties were recounted by a Northern observer as being “indescribable… Never will you see gayer countenances, demonstrations of more forgetfulness of the past and the future, and more entire abandonment to the joyous existence to the present movement.” The idea of letting loose and embracing traditional African music and dance is a backbone of the Mardi Gras Indians practice.
As a major southern trade port, New Orleans became a cultural melting pot.
During the late 1740s and 1750s, many enslaved Africans fled to the bayous of Louisiana where they encountered Native Americans. Years later, after the Civil War, hundreds of freed slaves joined the U.S. Ninth Cavalry Regiment, also known as Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers fought, killed, forced, and aided the mass removal and relocation of the Plains Indians on the Western Frontier. After returning to New Orleans, many ex-soldiers joined popular Wild West shows, most notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The show wintered in New Orleans from 1884 to 1885 and was hailed by the Daily Picayune as “the people’s choice”. There was at least one black cowboy in the show, and there were numerous black cowhands.
On Mardi Gras in 1885, 50 to 60 Plains Indians marched in native dress on the streets of New Orleans. Later that year, it is believed the first Mardi Gras Indian gang was formed; the tribe was named “The Creole Wild West” and was most likely composed of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, although the “Indian gangs” might predate their appearance in the City.
Mardi Gras Indian suits cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and can weigh upwards of one hundred pounds. A suit usually takes between six and nine months to plan and complete. Each Indian designs and creates his own suit; elaborate bead patches depict meaningful and symbolic scenes. Beads, feathers, and sequins are integral parts of a Mardi Gras Indian suit. Uptown New Orleans tribes tend to have more sculptural and abstract African-inspired suits; downtown tribes have more pictorial suits with heavy Native American influences.
The suits are revealed on Super Sunday and rival professional costume designers. Even though men dominate the different tribes, women can become Mardi Gras Indian “Queens” who make their own costumes and masks. The suits incorporate volume, giving the clothing a sculptural sensibility. Darryl Montana, son of the Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas “Hunters” tribe, states that the suits each year cost around $5,000 in materials that can include up to 300 yards of down feather trimming. The suits can take up to a year to complete as each artist needs to order materials, design the layout, sew and bead. The beadwork is entirely done by hand and feature a combination of color and texture. Some of the suits are displayed in museums throughout the country.