When Mardi Gras Indians parade down the streets of New Orleans during the city’s annual Carnival celebrations, onlookers experience a whirlwind of sensory stimulation. Dressed in handcrafted, Native American-inspired “suits,” participants chant and sing call-and-response songs, punctuating these vocals with the sounds of tambourines, cowbells, drums and other percussion instruments. The energy in the air is electric, whether the Indians are dancing or staging friendly competitions with rival “tribes,” as the dozens of social groups are known.
Despite its name, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is a distinctly African American one (a fact that has sparked questions of whether the moniker is appropriate and, more broadly, if the practice is a form of cultural appropriation). The most popular theory suggests its roots stretch back to the late 19th century, when Black New Orleanians started dressing up as Native Americans to pay homage to the Indigenous people who’d helped them escape from slavery and survive in the Louisiana wilderness. But the Indians’ exact origins are the subject of debate, as much of the relevant history was passed down orally.
For much of their existence, the Indians were an insular, secretive and loosely defined coalition known chiefly to the Black community. While the tribes have entered the public eye in recent decades, they still keep some secrets to themselves. Before masking, or donning eye-catching custom suits and gathering in the streets, participants must learn songs and their meaning, lingo, signals, and—above all—how to embody the Mardi Gras Indian spirit.
Scholars generally agree that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is linked to early encounters between the region’s Native and Black communities. Founded by the French in 1718, the city of New Orleans stands on land originally inhabited by the Chitimacha Tribe. As early as 1719, European colonizers brought enslaved people from the western coast of Africa to the nascent port city, which eventually became a hub of the United States slave trade.
While Africans made up the majority of enslaved people in Louisiana, research conducted by Leila K. Blackbird, a historian at the University of Chicago, found that Native and mixed-race people of Black and Native heritage constituted 20 percent of the state’s enslaved population during the antebellum period.
The relationship between Louisiana’s Indigenous and African populations was sometimes fraught, as state officials “frequently employed Black militiamen in their fights against Native American tribes, just as they employed Native Americans to hunt down African runaways,” writes Jeroen Dewulf, an expert on European studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians.
Still, the two marginalized groups found ways of supporting each other, with local tribes such as the Choctaw, the Seminole and the Chickasaw helping enslaved Africans escape from plantations and live off the land. Some of these fugitives from slavery took refuge in maroon camps (makeshift settlements in Louisiana’s swamps and bayous), while others sought shelter with Native communities, which then assimilated the Africans into their tribes.
One theory proposed by Dewulf, among other scholars, connects the Mardi Gras Indians to dances performed in the style of Kongolese warriors in New Orleans’ Congo Square. Between the 1740s and 1840s, enslaved and free Black people, Creoles of mixed European and African descent, and Native Americans convened in the square on Sundays for afternoons of revelry. Other sources cite the blending of African and Indigenous traditions that presumably took place when Native Americans sheltered escapees, as well as reports of free Black people attending Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows in the late 19th century.
Mardi Gras itself dates to New Orleans’ earliest days, or perhaps even before the city’s establishment. An annual event that begins on the Feast of the Epiphany and culminates in parades on Shrove Tuesday (or Fat Tuesday), the last day before Lent, the tradition builds on medieval European Carnival celebrations.
One of the first documented instances of Mardi Gras in New Orleans comes from Marc-Antoine Caillot’s 1730 account of a masquerade. But the Louisiana State Museum claims the Mardi Gras tradition stretches back even further, to 1699, when French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville celebrated his arrival at the mouth of the Mississippi River on Fat Tuesday.
While people of color initially participated in the masked balls held to celebrate Mardi Gras, the Spanish, who assumed control of Louisiana in 1762, pushed to exclude them from the festivities as early as 1781. The tradition faltered under Spanish rule, but after Louisiana became a state in 1812, Mardi Gras experienced a resurgence, with street parades becoming commonplace by the 1830s. As the Commercial Bulletin reported in 1838, “The principal streets were traversed by a masquerade company on horseback and in carriages. … A delightful throng followed on the heels of the cavalcade as it marched through our city suburbs, and wherever it went the procession raised a perfect hubbub and jubilee.”
Local businessmen established the city’s first “krewe” (a term used to describe the private clubs and organizations formed to celebrate Carnival), the Mistick Krewe of Comus, in 1857. Though the outbreak of the Civil War put a temporary hold on Mardi Gras, the tradition returned after the conflict’s end, with many krewes adopting imagery of kings and queens as a way of reinforcing white supremacy. They also perpetuated racist stereotypes by designing costumes that associated Black men with gorillas.
Excluded from mainstream Carnival celebrations, New Orleans’ Black community cultivated its own traditions, including the Mardi Gras Indians. Archival evidence traces the practice to the 1880s, when the Seventh Ward’s Becate Batiste founded the Creole Wild West tribe. But researchers argue it could go back even further.
“There are lots of questions—I think open questions—about the prehistory of the organizations we know as Mardi Gras Indians that take us all the way back, potentially, into the 16th century and the Kongo Kingdom,” says Bryan Wagner, a literary scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. After growing up in New Orleans, he’s spent the past few years researching his hometown’s history and culture.
Batiste and other early Mardi Gras Indians could trace branches of their family trees to local Native American tribes, writes Wagner in The Wild Tchoupitoulas. But the scholar believes the music, beadwork and other aspects of the tradition stem from West African customs.
Dozens of tribes independently organized in the years after the Creole Wild West’s formation. Encounters between rival bands of Indians often led to violence, with tribes using the raucous celebration as a day “to settle scores,” according to the Mardi Gras New Orleans website. Then, in the 1970s, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas partnered with other tribal leaders to end the unrest and shift the tradition’s focus to pageantry and friendly competition. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council was established in 1985 to represent the tribes’ interests.
Following the council’s formation, the Indians’ energy shifted from physical fighting to contests over the best suits, chants and more. Typically consisting of a crown, a dickie (tuxedo front) and an apron, suits are handcrafted over a period of six months to a year. Adorned with beads, feathers and other decorative embellishments, they draw inspiration from both Native American and African ceremonial dress.
The Indians’ music initially involved chanting, drumming, tambourines, cowbells, and even sticks and soda bottles, says Melissa A. Weber, a curator at Tulane University Special Collections. The groups’ sound eventually evolved to include funk and other genres.
Some tribes have released commercial recordings of their music. The Wild Tchoupitoulas—“a Black working-class mystic society and fraternal organization,” writes Wagner—produced a 1976 album that employed “a Caribbean flavor,” Weber says. Another tribe, the Wild Magnolias, embraced funk.
“It was synonymous with the music at the time, but New Orleans—what a lot of people don’t know—set the tone for all of American popular music,” Weber says. Jazz pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton and R&B group the Neville Brothers are among the famous musicians who have masked as Mardi Gras Indians.
Given its use of Native American imagery and customs, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition has proved controversial, particularly in recent years amid debates over cultural appropriation. In undated archival footage provided by the Mardi Gras Indian Council, Estabon Eugene, big chief of the Golden Arrows, acknowledged that the practice prompts mixed feelings among some Indigenous people. A Black man, Eugene said the custom is “not about disrespect” but rather “paying tribute” to Native Americans.
“It’s complicated,” says Jeffery Darensbourg, a Louisiana Creole and a member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas. Like him, many of the Mardi Gras Indians he’s met claim both Native and African heritage.
“What it means to be Black can be a lot of things … in Louisiana,” says Darensbourg, who discussed the issue of Mardi Gras Indians and appropriation in the 2021 documentary Big Chief, Black Hawk. He describes himself as “generally not opposed” to the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which he considers a hybrid of Native and West African cultures.
But he does take issue with Mardi Gras Indians who name themselves after unaffiliated Native tribes, using words like “Mohawk” and “Pocahontas.” “No one gets to use someone’s tribal name unless they have some heritage in that tribe,” Darensbourg says. “These are tribes who have fought a long time just to be able to exist.”
Though some elements of the tradition gave her pause, she noted that the tradition developed “out of a shared position of marginality and discrimination” and has since evolved “outside of the realm of cultural appropriation into a distinct culture and community.”
The Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana Consortium, which represents five Native tribes, declined to comment for this story.
Big Chief Derrick Hulin (also known as Big Chief Uptown) of the Golden Blades was first drawn to the Mardi Gras Indians as a child when he heard a recording by the Wild Magnolias. Captivated by a white suit on the album’s cover, he says, “I just got bit by the bug.”
Born and raised in the 17th Ward’s Hollygrove neighborhood, Hulin has now masked for almost 30 years. His tribe was established in the 1930s and is among New Orleans’ oldest.
Hulin says the Mardi Gras Indians employ visual, musical and theatrical arts. Some of their handcrafted suits could be deemed fine art, while others are displays of abstract art. Uptown tribes often utilize intricate beading, while downtown tribes embrace architectural designs with three-dimensional elements. Suits can weigh up to 100 pounds, and the materials required to make them can cost thousands of dollars.
In the weeks before Fat Tuesday, Hulin starts to transform into Big Chief Uptown to lead his tribe on the streets. “Ain’t no rest, because you’re chief, mom, dad, brother, sister, father, pastor—you’re everything to these guys,” he says.
“Everybody has their different opinions about the Mardi Gras Indians,” Hulin adds. But the practice goes deeper than showing participants’ collective respect of Native Americans. For Hulin and others, it also means cherishing Black culture, honoring their ancestors and serving their neighborhoods.
Are the Mardi Gras Indians best defined as a community, a tradition, a brotherhood and sisterhood, or an example of living history? “All of the above,” Hulin says. “Even if I don’t mask, I still see myself with this for the rest of my life.”