Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Monday, March 19, 2012


Yes, I had an exhausting Saint Patrick's Day weekend: five gigs in two days. But that did not keep me from running out Sunday (and dragging poor sleepy Lauren and Stephanie with me) to see the Mardi Gras Indians on what we in NOLA call Super Sunday.

What's a Mardi Gras Indian, and what does football have to do with it? Well first, our Super Sunday is not football related: it's the Sunday that falls closest to Saint Joseph's Day. This is the Sunday when the Mardi Gras Indians parade, in the final (most awesome) parade of the Mardi Gras season.

So we're back to the first question: what is a Mardi Gras Indian? (Besides the best kept New Orleans secret of all?). Mardi Gras Indians are a loose confederation of "tribes" that each fall somewhere between a social club and a gang. They are composed almost entirely of African Americans, who follow a tradition that goes back more than a century and a half. There are roughly 38 Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, each tied to a traditionally African American neighborhood. Since the mid-1800s the tribes have "masked," or dressed in costumes influenced by American Indian culture, and paraded through their own neighborhoods. The tradition probably dates from a time when escaped slaves were harbored by American Indian nations, and Indians and African Americans intermarried and created the cross culture that is known today as the Creoles. Beginning at Mardi Gras, each tribe will stage parades in their own neighborhood. On Super Sunday, all of the tribes converge in the Lower Garden District. The parade is a competition, and the tribe that makes the most spectacular show gains the respect of the entire Mardi Gras Indian nation for that year.

The MG Indians created their own parade day primarily because they were not allowed to parade officially on Mardi Gras itself: while New Orleans has always been a mixed race city, and Free People of Color have always lived here, after emancipation "Jim Crow" laws prevented Blacks from involvement in official Mardi Gras celebrations. So the Mardi Indians established their own parade day (though Indians do parade "unofficially" on Mardi Gras itself) on Saint Joseph Day. While most official parades today date back as far as the 1970s and earlier, the Mardi Gras Indian events are the only Mardi Gras celebrations that follow an unbroken history nearly two centuries old.

Indian costumes are spectacular. That's not even the right word. Amazing might cover it, overused as that superlative is. Each costume is hand made. The bead work takes hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, and tribes enlist family and neighbors in the creation of each "mask" (as the entire costume is called). At the end of the parade season, the costume is deconstructed and burned, and creation of a new costume begins. Yes, really! Above is a big chief of the Comanche Hunters. His mask tells a story of the Plains Inidans. These shots were taken early in the day as he was preparing to parade.

The parade itself is not a traditional parade at all. To a spectator it might seem like mass chaos, but this hundred-and-fifty-year-old culture has a complex social structure.

Each tribe is led by a Flag Boy. The Flag Boy will travel a block ahead of the tribe. His job is to steer the tribe toward friendly tribes and away from potentially dangerous tribes. While a Flag Boy may dress in street wear, this one is masked, and using his flags to signal a potential competition. A hundred years ago there were occasional bouts of violence between tribes. In fact a well known song, Iko Iko, (covered by acts including the Grateful Dead and New Orleans' Dr. John: listen to this version for the correct MG Indian lyrics) is a taunt between two Mardi Gras Indian tribes. In recent decades the organization of the tribes has done away with all but symbolic combat.

Next comes the Wild Man. The Wild Man wears horns or antlers as a mark of his rank. His job is to part the crowds so the rest of his tribe can march through, which he does by dancing wildly into the crowds (almost like Punk slam-dancing). While I was shooting these images of the Comanche Hunters, this Wild Man was dancing threateningly, pushing myself and the rest of the crowd aside.

Then come the tribe members gathered around the Big Chief and his Queen (here are the Big Chief and the Queen of the Comanche Hunters). Each Big Chief carries his "Chief Stick." The tribe will sing, chant and dance as they parade; each tribe has its own set of chants and songs. There is a deep musical connection between the MG Indian chants and the Jazz tunes of the Second Line tradition, though bear in mind the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is slightly older than the musical style of Jazz (but only slightly). There was probably a huge crossed culture between Indians and early Jazz musicians.

The tradition is carried by families through generations; Children are active paraders, chanting and marching with their adults. The boy in this photo carries a toy rifle; the MG Indians once carried real shotguns into parades. These are now replaced by toy rifles and mock spears.

Here a girl shows off her mask. She is in the retinue of one of the Queens.

Here is a Flag Boy of another tribe (this might be Wild Tchoupitoulas). Note that his flags are actually marked with "Flag Boy."

Big Chiefs wear the most elaborate masks, with hidden panels and layers of feathers and bead work. When posturing against another tribe (or posing for cameras), a Big Chief will assume an "open" position, showing off his paneled bead work.

When marching or resting, the chief will remain "closed."

Here is a tribal member whose mask does not tell a story, but simply proclaims his tribal affiliation:

A chief and his Queen, above.

The Algiers Warriors made a spectacular showing. Here is their Big Chief and his retinue:

Below is an example of the amazing bead work worn by Indians. This mask represents a peacock; note the detail of the headdress:

Amazing geometric beadwork, above.

This Wild Man created his mask out of denim. Note the detail on the back represnting peace between the Black Man and the White Man. (His friend, below, was a well dressed spectator).

Take a look at the incredible textured layers of feathers in the child's costume below:

By the way, since fake hair is used to represent the long braids of Plains Indians, it can be very difficult to tell the girls from the boys in the youngest paraders.

As with any New Orleans event, the spectators often dress as spectacularly as the paraders:

Below: One of the tribes chanting as they parade. The chants are great, very rhythmic and catchy. Spectators will often fall into the parade with a particular tribe to chant and dance with them:

A Queen and her retinue.

Above: This kid, whose t-shirt says "Pirate Girl," got some special attention from one of the Big Chiefs. For gangs that can be hostile to each other, there is an ethic of sharing and sweetness among the tribes when parading for outsiders.

After the parade, the tribes gather in the park at Washington and LaSalle, and present their masks for all to see and admire (and to gain standing among other tribes). Here are some close-ups of the amazing bead work. The first represents the battle of the Little Big Horn, and George Armstrong Custer's defeat:

This one represents life on the Mississippi before the Whites came. Note the alligator:

Above: The beadworked banner of the Geronimo Hunters tribe.

From Super Sunday in New Orleans, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.


  1. Mitchell PoulouinMay 1, 2012 at 6:22 AM

    Kenny...I knew that there was an element of native Indians that participated in the "other" Mardi Gras celebration...but I had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER of this spectacular event. Thank you for documenting this incredible culture for Brother!!!!!!! You did it very well and very respectful!!!!!