New Orleans, LA

It is no secret that New Orleans is made of its own kind of magic. During Mardi Gras — the city’s culmination ultimé — a reified sacred world emerges from the street, so raw and brightly colored we have to squint. No matter where you are in the city or what time of day it is, men in masks throw beads from balconies and glowing LEDs light up trinkets swandive from giant fiberglass floats, high school kids in marching bands tilt their trumpets to the sky in unison, as if lifting their golden throats to sing holy holy in some tribal rhythmic ritual. Crack a crawdad and suck out its insides, and boogie in a bounce-induced fever and watch as everyone slips into a proper southern swoon. 

The most elusive tradition is the march of the Mardi Gras Indians. A tradition nearly three centuries old, the Mardi Gras Indians are African-American “tribes” borne out of working-class neighborhoods, secret societies, and spiritual groups. The Indians wear elaborate hand-beaded and feathered costumes, or “suits,” that members of the tribe spend the whole year making. Each suit comes to symbolize a specific and hierarchical position within the tribe, be it that of chief, queen, spy boy, or wild man, and the ornate patterns tell a tale all their own. Mystery shrouds the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians. Some say they pay homage to the Native Americans in the Houma and Chitihacha tribes who provided refuge for runaway slaves in the swamplands of Louisiana, while others maintain it was a show for Buffalo Bill’s visit west. 

In public ceremony, tribes dance and circle round each other in ritualistic competition. Once violent in nature, these days rival tribes compete for the superior suit and act of showmanship. When rival chiefs meet on the streets, they shout boasts and insults and you lookin good, babys at each other, while chanting call-and-response ditties that their grandparents before their grandparents before their grandparents sang. The songs remain to this day the most prominent and accessible part of Mardi Gras Indian culture. A line of percussionists offer support with tom drums, penny jars, bells, and forty bottles. It’s a spectacle of magic realism, characters of folklore, myth and legend culled from neighborhood 7-11s and front porch stoops.   

Photographs taken by one of The Big Easy’s own, Michael P. Smith.

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