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...
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.
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.
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).
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.