Jan 31 2012

Mardi Gras Indian Costumes Unmasked

By: Tyler Lott

all indians left sideSuits from various tribes line the walls of Treme's Backstreet Museum - Matchull Summers

 They’ve walked the streets of New Orleans for hundreds of years. With their heads held high and their sights held steady, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans have reveled in the Louisiana sunshine. Amidst the numerous onlookers, they’ve been performing with their earliest appearances dating back to the 1800s - and no showing has ever been the same. 


Mardi Gras Indians are a version of home-grown royalty, but go often unrecognized by tourists or locals alike. To date, there are reports of up to 50 individual tribes in the New Orleans area. Although some tribes are older than others, the history of the Indian is a widely debatable topic. Depending on who is talking,  the origin of the Mardi Gras Indian may differ. The most popular and widely accepted lineage of the Mardi Gras Indian is said to pay homage to the Native Americans who offered refuge to escaped African Slaves. 


No matter which story you hold true, or perhaps a combination of them all, one thing has stood fast throughout history - the remarkable beauty and pageantry of the Indians themselves. To see these men and women walking down the streets ever so slow, yet seemingly too fast is an awe-inspiring occasion. Amidst the indulgences of the carnival season and the overcrowding of the streets, the Indians offer a refuge of an intriguing, yet secretive culture. Although many interested parties seem to focus on the history and composition of the tribes, very few stop to truly see and appreciate what goes into the making of a Mardi Gras Indian costume. 


Growing up in New Orleans, we know of the Indians... but most of the time we take them for granted. They’re a part of our life and your history, but even I have never really asked, “How do they do it?” Mrs. Anita Francis, who with her husband owns the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme,  was kind enough to open her doors and giving me a look inside the life and history of an Indian rarely heard or seen. As I walked up the stairs, Anita and her husband Sylvester greeted me with lively music in the background. Once inside the museum, I was overwhelmed with a sense of home. The long hallway draws your eyes to a feast of colorful, visual treats while the architecture of the re-purposed home preps your soul for a story like you’ve never heard. 


Being a Mardi Gras Indian is a lifetime commitment, while the construction of the costume itself takes an entire year to complete. Very few know that from the tops of the feathers to the bottom of their rhinestone encrusted boots, every detail of the Indian costume is hand designed, selected, and sewn by the Indians themselves. The tradition of making all costumes by hand begins as soon as a child can hold a needle - some as early as eight years old. Children learn the basic skills by drawing patterns and sewing beads on a simple piece of cloth or canvas. As their skills increase, the elders continue to expand the children’s talent to more elaborate challenges - sometimes a headband or mask. Eventually, they become skilled artists with unlimited capabilities and challenges set before them. From there, each Indian will hand select his or her own materials, often traveling as far as the fashion hub of New York to select just the right ones. With a simple beginning of canvas and cardboard, these elaborate designs begin in nothing more than the Indian’s own imagination. As they begin to draw and sew, a story becomes o a picture of love, turmoil, or triumph - many times what he or she is experiencing in their own life. As the beading and rhinestones begin to take shape, the portrait of a warrior is made into a beautiful depiction of the life of a true New Orleanian. Indians sew day in and day out to for an entire year to complete these works of art , which often reach heights of eight or nine feet and weight in upwards of one hundred pounds upon completion. 


Indians take great pride in their costumes, showcasing their talent and beauty in a way only a native to New Orleans could do. The tradition culminates with the destruction of that year’s masterpiece  - never to be used again. It is custom to never reuse even a single bead, feather, or rhinestone, thus making the tradition an extremely costly one. In a world where materials and fashions are often reused or recycled, this may seem wasteful or elaborate to some.

Yet, this is done simply out of pride and respect for one’s self, culture, and tribe. Mardi Gras Indians don’t need catwalks or bright lights. They have the streets of our beloved hometown laced with a colorful backdrop of homes and people that are as irreplaceable as the Indians themselves. This is not a show for the money or the fame. This particular fashion show is for the people of New Orleans to celebrate our history, culture, and interconnected souls. 


Regardless of the Indian or the tribe, there are a few staples to this cultural couture. If you look closely, each Indian costume has the same building blocks: cardboard for support, canvas for flexibility and design.  Beads, rhinestones, sequins and feathers provide for that extra height and flare. The unique way each Indian combines these elements sets the tone for the entire suit. Some, like Victor Harris, Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, honors his African heritage by creating his costumes and utilizing African grass, shells, and inspired designs. With the African influence present in all of the tribes, one might find it hard to distinguish him from the others. But, if you look closely, the Big Chief of the Mandingo Warrior will always be in full mask - a tradition of old that he holds on to dearly. You will never see his face, only the beautiful beadwork and elaborate designs that encompass his costume, leaving the onlooker capable of only of uttering a less than suitable, “woah."


In true Mardi Gras Fashion, the emphasis in a parade is always placed on the royalty, but the tribesmen are proud to walk by their fellow Indian’s side. Every member of the tribe is important in their own right and although every tribe has a Big King and Big Queen, many tribes have additional kings and queens, creating an impressive and elaborate royal court. Rank and succession are determined within the tribe, yet most conclude that the right of King is passed on through the blood of nobility. If the Big Chief is called to his rest, you can most likely expect his eldest son to step up to the honor of leading the tribe.


These men and women make a statement in material form - a statement of the Indian life, Indian family, and Indian pride. For years, it was one of New Orleans’ best kept secrets. Soon the world will know, love, and respects the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians. Thanks to the growing popularity of the film industry in New Orleans as well as the hit show Treme, Mardi Gras Indians have gone from local treasure to national spotlight. Origins aside, the reach of their splendor is steadfastly growing. Their popularity has increased to such a degree that tribes are sought after to perform at numerous events across the country, extending their exposure beyond the Mardi Gras holiday. Mardi Gras Indian costumes were even displayed at the 5th Annual Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design at FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) in Los Angeles in the Summer of 2010. As a veteran of the Los Angeles fashion scene myself, I’ll put these grassroots craftsmen up against the costume designers of the industry any day. Their costumes are hand made and elaborate -  true to the soul of a New Orleanian.


What happens if you’re not in town for Mardi Gras or miss the Indians’ parade? Although most Mardi Gras Indian costumes are destroyed, a few are preserved for generations to admire and to allow this precious culture to sustain the test of time. Anita (Indian royalty in her own right) opens their doors every Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00am to 4:00pm and will share an up close and personal look into the life of one of New Orleans’ most beautiful cultural and historical celebrations. Open since 1999, the Backstreet Cultural Museum serves as a repository of Indian culture with elaborate costumes of Big Chiefs, Queens, and Indians from across the ages displayed in life size fashion, allowing visitors to appreciate the grandeur and scope of the Indian’s craft.


Who are these Indians in their every day life? To be honest, you never really know.Your banker may be an Indian. Your co-worker may be one. You most assuredly often pass one on the street, but thanks to their close-knit society and ever changing costumes, the only true way to know all the Indians is to be one. They know each other by name, by signal, or by chant. If you look closely as they pass, you may sea a  hawk, a skull, a blade, or an eagle to give you a hint, but listen closely to their calls and you’ll see more than their name. You will see a history rich in honor, respect, and beauty yet to be surpassed.

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