A Super Sunday Reminder
Mar 14 2017

A Super Sunday Reminder

By: Julia Engel

As a non-native living in New Orleans, Super Sunday has become one of my favorite days of the year—the costumes, dancing, music and congregation of the community are a magical experience that everyone should witness. Yet as this beloved day is already arriving this Sunday, March 19, I quickly realized I really didn’t know enough about the event to truly label it as one of my favorite days of the year. So for both your benefit and mine, I’ve done a bit more research on Mardi Gras Super Sunday to provide some proper perspective on this weekend’s marvels.
 
A Super Sunday Reminder
 
Unbeknownst to much of the New Orleans public and its visitors, this long-practiced Mardi Gras Indian tradition is drenched in as much history as Black New Orleans culture itself. Although many of the practices of the event have evolved since its inception in the 1960s, Super Sunday has remained a ritualized occurrence acting as a sociopolitical statement in the urban New Orleans landscape. As historian Ronald W. Lewis has noted, Super Sunday was formed as a reaction to the racial polarization of New Orleans neighborhoods. In a word, the event is a statement saying, “You’re not giving us a place here in society, so we’ll create our own.”

"These Black New Orleans neighborhoods have formed their own counter-culture out of the Mardi Gras Indian traditions—and Super Sunday is the epitome of them."

Within the realm of activities performed by the tribes on Super Sunday, “masking” is an essential aspect of the annual event that involves the Mardi Gras Indian tribes’ friends and family, and is a competitive component of the day. Using their own esoteric language and chants to communicate, tribe chiefs confront opposing chiefs and perform metaphorical ‘blows’ upon their opponents, as a means of defending their tribes and by extension representing their respective neighborhoods. Masking has been explained as a nuanced connection between the suffering of the Native Americans in the process of American nation-building and the suffering of African Americans in the newly formed American landscape. As a means of paying homage to the hospitable Native American tribes who took in many runaway slaves in the Louisiana bayous, and as a way of expressing this deeply-seeded awareness of oppression and discrimination, these Black New Orleans neighborhoods have formed their own counter-culture out of the Mardi Gras Indian traditions. Super Sunday is the epitome of them.Within the realm of activities performed by the tribes on Super Sunday, “Masking” is an essential aspect of the annual event that involves the Mardi Gras Indian tribes’ friends and family, and is a competitive component of the day. Using their own esoteric language and chants to communicate, tribe chiefs confront opposing chiefs and perform metaphorical ‘blows’ upon their opponents, as a means of defending their tribes and by extension representing their respective neighborhoods. Masking has been explained as a nuanced connection being made between the suffering of the Native Americans in the process of American nation-building and the suffering of African Americans in the newly formed American landscape. As a means of paying homage to the hospitable Native American tribes who took in many runaway slaves in the Louisiana bayous, and as a way of expressing this deeply-seeded awareness of oppression and discrimination, these Black New Orleans neighborhoods have formed their own counter-culture out of the Mardi Gras Indian traditions—and Super Sunday is the epitome of them.

A Super Sunday Reminder

Occurring on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day, Super Sunday now consists of a day parade starting and ending at A.L. Davis Park in Central City, as well as other events throughout the day, such as musical entertainment. Each neighborhood has tribes organized in a hierarchical framework, that consist of a Big Chief, Spy Boy, Flag Boy and others, all with individual positions and duties. Followed by a Second Line, these tribes participate in dance battles with each other, performing intricately practiced routines almost as detailed as the beautiful costumes the Mardi Gras Indians wear to perform. The Indian tribes and their respective Second Lines use their ranked roles as a means to express the ethics and responsibilities that are valued by these African American neighborhoods in the city. The Big Chief, for instance, often takes the role of providing advice and financial assistance to tribe members.

"In the post-Katrina aftermath, the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods like the Bywater and the chronic targeting by city government officials has manifested into a barrier against the use of urban space for social expression on the part of the Mardi Gras Indians and the Super Sunday tradition."

Unfortunately, there has been a history of conflict between the NOPD and Mardi Gras Indians. Instances of police brutality and arrests during Super Sunday festivities for claims of ‘disturbing the peace’ and the suspicion of brandishing weapons during dance battles have occurred both in the years preceding Katrina and in recent years. Now, Second Lines often incur fees from NOPD under the pretext that their dancing performances are sources of violence and thus require more heavy NOPD supervision. Second Lines have disturbingly been attributed to the occurrence of unrelated acts of inner-city violence taking place in the aftermath of Super Sunday festivities. Such accusations raise the question of why a tradition as culturally rich and important as Super Sunday is a logical target for the police force and growingly gentrified neighborhoods. In the post-Katrina aftermath, the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods like the Bywater and the chronic targeting by city government officials has manifested into a barrier against the use of urban space for social expression on the part of the Mardi Gras Indians and the Super Sunday tradition.

A Super Sunday Reminder

With the continual reconstruction of New Orleans in the post-Katrina landscape, it seems the space for expression for Black native New Orleanians to work, live and celebrate their culture is dwindling. As more white and affluent non-New Orleans natives are finding their homes in the spaces that many Black New Orleanians were forced to abandon in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, the tolerance and curiosity surrounding Super Sunday have been contrasted with a fear and misunderstanding of these traditions.

It appears necessary, then, to be conscious of these underlying issues infringing upon such a special New Orleans tradition when you’re ogling the glamorously feathered and beaded costumes and clapping along to the passionate Mardi Gras Indian dances this weekend.  Hopefully, this article will provide you with some more knowledge to better appreciate the wondrous spectacle that is Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday.

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