Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Indian Red! Part Two: The Parade

In my last blog post, I spoke about watching the Mardi Gras Indian tribes get ready to parade on Super Sunday. Once each tribe was suited up, or "masked Indian," the parade began. It started with a Second Line. This is a New Orleans tradition of a brass band, which often plays spirituals, followed by dancers and celebrants. The term "second line" comes from New Orleans Jazz funerals, which celebrate the fact that the deceased has left the hardships of life and has gone to a better place: the first line carries the coffin, and the second line plays the music.

After the Second Line, the tribes began to process, falling into order randomly, but often preferring to march near one tribe, and avoid others. Each tribe's members place themselves in a particular order...

Spy Boy

Above, the Spy Boy of the Red White And Blue tribe.

While Super Sunday is a peaceful celebration now, in the old days Mardi Gras Indians were gangs; on Saint Joseph Night there would be actual wars between tribes. The job of the Spy Boy is to run ahead of the tribe, and scout whether other tribes are approaching. He then signals the Flag Boy.

Above: Spy Boy of the Creole Wild West. Below: Spy Boy of Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Flag Boy

Any fan of the Grateful Dead or of Dr. John knows the song "Iko Iko," with its line 
My Flag Boy see your Flag Boy
Way down on the bayou
My Flag Boy see your Flag Boy 
Gonna set your flag on fire

Above: Flag Boy of the Mohawk Hunters.

When the Spy Boys warns the Flag Boy of an approaching tribe, the Flag Boy must ascertain if the tribe coming near is friendly or hostile. He uses his flags to signal the Big Chief. (In the song Iko Iko, recounting an incident of the 1920s, a Flag Boy signaled wrong, and the result was violence).

Above: Golden Eagles. 

Wild Man

One of the most colorful tribe members, the Wild Man clears the way for the Big Chief and his retinue. He does this by prancing, dancing and careening into the crowd, much like Punk slam dancing.The Wild Man also announces the Chief's coming, the tribe's name, and will call out the Indian credo. This always contains the words "Won't bow; don't know how!" and often the words "I make a new suit each year." It is traditional to destroy the intricate suits after each season (which take thousands of hours to create, and weight up to a hundred pounds), and start a new one yearly.

The Wild Man often wears a horned bonnet, and carries a staff with a skull or bones.

Above and below: A Wild Man careens through the crowds, opening space for the Big Chief.

Above: This Wild Man wears buffalo antlers on both his bonnet and on his staff.

Big Chief, Second Chief

A large enough tribe may have several chiefs: a Trail Chief, who trails behind the Big Chief to guard his back, a Second Chief and even a Third Chief. But each tribe has only one Big Chief, the ruler of the tribe. On Saint Joseph's Night, all members of the tribe follow where the Big Chief leads. 

Above: Big Chief David of the Washitaw tribe. David is a relation of Tutti Montana, one of the great Indian Chiefs. David was Second Chief of Yellow Pocahontas, and left a few years ago to create Washitaw. He is an amazing man, and a great chief: marching with him, I saw the passion he inspires in his tribe.

Above: Ninth Ward Navajos.


Each tribe may have several Queens. They surround the Big Chief, and of course, they are stunningly beautiful. 

Above and below: the Washitaw tribe's lovely Queens surround Big Chief. 

 Above: Queen Rukia.


 In speaking of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, I've mentioned several times that the tradition is multi-generational. Children are raised in the Indian world, and some grow up to become Chiefs and Queens.

This is just adorable... the proud father told me his child would grow up to become a Chief.


Music is a vital element of Indian spectacle. Each tribe has its own chants, and there are many common chants and songs. The song every tribe knows is Indian Red (see Lauren's video here). Most of the chants are "Call and Response." the Big Chief sings a line, and the tribe sings a repetitive line back. Chants are accompanied by tambourines, drums, cowbell, and even old bottles and cans.


Many "Babydolls" accompany the Indians, especially (I have observed) the Fi-Ya-Ya tribe. The tradition began around 1912, when African American prostitutes working outside the legal prostitution area of Storyville began dressing as Babydolls on Mardi Gras, presumably to show up their legalized (white) competition. The Babydolls will often sport a pacifier, and act "childish" as they march. 

(Above photo from last year's Super Sunday). 

Parting shots...

For more about saint Joseph's Night and the march Lauren and I took with Washitaw, see Lauren's blog here.

From an amazing, overwhelming Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday, this is Kenny Klein, explaining it all.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Indian Red! Part one: Suiting Up.

While the rest of the U. S. was getting drunk on green beer last Sunday, we here in New Orleans...well, lots of us got drunk on green beer. But we also had my favorite parade day of the year: Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday.

Above: Chief David of the Washetaw tribe. was not convenient for me to have St. Patrick's Day and Super Sunday on the same day. That green flash was me, leaving the parade and peddling like mad to get to the next gig. But I did it, and survived.

For any of my readers who don't know, Mardi Gras Indians are the oldest parade tradition in New Orleans, and dates back to a time after Emancipation when African Americans paid tribute to the local American Indians who aided escaped slaves and hid them from white slave hunters (there was a big bounty for "returning" escaped slaves...even those actually born as free people). Under Jim Crow laws, African Americans could not parade openly on Mardi Gras day, so Saint Joseph's Day became the traditional day for Indians. On the Sunday nearest to Saint Joseph's Day, the Indians gather in LaSalle Park (just four blocks from my house) and parade through Central City. (On Saint Joseph's Night, which, as I write this, is tonight, each tribe parades through their own neighborhood: Lauren and I will be joining the Washitaw tribe in the Treme).

I came up Washington Avenue just as the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe were "masking" or "suiting up," the process of donning the one hundred pound suits that take all year, and thousands of hours, to create. It was an awesome spectacle to witness.

Above: Big Chief and his daughters prepare to suit up.

Dressing an Indian Princess... Indian culture is passed from generation to generation, often from parent to child.

Above, Chief staff in hand, and ready to go...

Next the Spy Boy appeared. The Spy Boy is the member of the tribe who watches for other tribes approaching: other tribes may be friendly or hostile. If an approaching tribe is hostile, the Spy Boy will signal the Flag Boy, who will alert the Big Chief. Here on Washington Avenue, while the other members of the tribe are suiting up, the Spy Boy grabs some love and admiration...

Now the Spy Boy is joined by the Wild Man: his job will be to part the crowds so that the Big Chief and his retinue can come through. He also shouts the credo of the tribe, which always includes the phrase "Um Bow! (Won't bow), Don't Know How!"

Below: A detail of the Wild Man's suit. Yes it's creepy...that's the idea.

Wild Man and Little Queen.

Above: Second Chief Floyd and Queen Kim.  Queen Kim was dancing when I arrived, waiting to suit up. The only time Queen Kim stopped dancing all day was to have photos taken with members of the crowd.

Lauren had wandered off to find Washitaw, the tribe she would march with, and after Wild Tchoupitoulas was ready to go, I left the scene there and started up the street to see other tribes. I found several other tribes, including the Golden Eagles, suiting up:

Even for an Indian, a cell phone is a necessity. 

I found Lauren with  the Washitaw, a newer tribe who had broken away from Yellow Pocahontas a few years ago. Their suits are simply amazing! Perhaps the most beautifully detailed I have ever seen, and that's comparing them to some stunning work by other tribes.

Big Chief David above, with details of his suit below.

Below: Queen Rukia, whose totem is the Monarch Butterfly, and who dances like...well you guessed it The butterflies on her suit are spectacular. 

I also saw the tribe below suit up: I believe they are the Morning Star Hunters... sometimes one has to collect that information by word of mouth, and there is room for error (I apologize if I am naming this tribe incorrectly).

Suited up, each tribe was ready to march. I'll write more in a day or two, with Part 2, The Parade: I have a LOT more photos to edit...

[Afterward, late on Tuesday night: After writing this, I marched with the Washitaw for four hours, covering about eight or ten miles through the Treme, the Ninth Ward and the Bywater. It was amazing. Chief David took us to a seniors home, where his sister lives, and invoked the spirit of the White Buffalo to bring the seniors health and spiritual peace. We sang and marched, sang and marched for hours, gaining more and more marchers behind us. I just came home to rest a moment: the tribe is still singing and marching.]

From Mardi Gras Indian Super Sunday, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all...well, explaining part one at least.