A Brief History of Mardi Gras Indians
During Carnival season in New Orleans, the streets come alive with the sounds and sights of the city’s most colorful cultural export.
Every Mardi Gras morning, a tradition takes place that is rooted in the deep history of African American New Orleanians. It’s loud, it’s proud and it’s a spectacle that you’ll find nowhere else on Earth. This is the day when the Mardi Gras Indians seek each other out for ceremonial battle, competing for who is “the prettiest.”
You won’t find their routes on any map, and you can’t Google their locations. The handful of Indians and their entourage wander the streets of New Orleans’ backstreets in a celebration that makes for an unforgettable experience, both for the participants and the crowds that follow them.
The history of the Mardi Gras Indians is one of challenges and triumph. Traditionally, Mardi Gras krewes (social organizations) excluded inner-city African Americans from their parades and opulent balls. Being part of a krewe has always been an exclusive and expensive affair, with some that are open to members and others by invitation only.
So what did New Orleans’ African American community do? Bond together to create their own celebrations.
Mardi Gras Indians and Super Sunday
The Spy Boy leads the procession. Or rather, he comes before the procession, looking out for rival tribes and to let the Big Chief know when he spots them. Tribes will eventually meet in an explosion of color and dance. Songs and chants begin with the two Big Chiefs, followed by a ceremonial war dance.
As much of a spectacle the call-and-response, chanting and dancing is, the centerpiece of it all is the suits. The Mardi Gras Indians take their costume design cues from both Native American and West African traditions, with a distinctly local twist. Thousands of hours, thousands of dollars and thousands of beads and feathers go into each suit, many of which tell stories of African and African-American history in their designs. Many of them take years of planning and preparation to put together. Learn more about Mardi Gras Indians history and music.
If you don’t catch Mardi Gras Indians on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 16, 2021), you can find them at the second-largest gathering of the year. Dubbed Super Sunday, the event is typically held the third Sunday in March and begins at noon in A.L. Davis Park.
But, don’t worry — you can still see Mardi Gras Indian tradition no matter the time of year you visit. The Backstreet Cultural Museum, in the heart of the Tremé neighborhood (the oldest continuously inhabited African American neighborhood in the U.S.), is a repository of Mardi Gras Indian history. So is the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum, located in the heart of the historic 9th Ward. Learn more about New Orleans' neighborhoods.
Catch the Mardi Gras parades happening throughout Louisiana!