Friday, November 27, 2009

Unpacking the Indians (Part One)

So, after going to Mardi Gras Indian practice a few weeks ago and really trying to figure out my approach to covering this phenomenon, I realized that most basic place to start is in attempting to define the cultural marvel itself. So, to borrow from the (radical) author Ned Sublette, who put my own feelings so succinctly into prose, “I don’t claim to be the guy who knows the most about New Orleans, and I don’t claim to speak for New Orleans, but I speak for the New Orleans that’s in me.” (The Year Before the Flood)  What follows is my personal interpretation of this unique sub-culture. I am no expert and I wholly accept that I may be totally off base. Take this for what it is… the impressions that a city and culture have left on a young woman left completely, desperately, and unashamedly in-love with it.

The History
A great place to start is this clip of a documentary about the Black Indians of New Orleans (A sort of synonym for Mardi Gras Indians, who locals seems most likely to refer to as simply "The Injuns"). The clip is only 9mins long and stops aburptly and I can't seem to dig up the subsequent clips anywhere, but it is a good place to start none-the-less....

Wikipedia defines the Mardi Gras Indians as Carnival revelers who mask as Native America Indians.... this is true, but the story is far more complex than just that.

Basically, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are a cultural phenomenon that dates back to at least the mid 19th Century and is either a tradition that was born out of the reverence African-American slaves felt for the benevolence of Native American Indians who took them in when they ran away from their masters or it's a tradition that was born out of the lure of Buffalo Bill's Wilds West show that was in NoLa in the 1880s or it is a tradition that has its roots firmly in the tribal customs and living role play that originates in Africa OR..... as I suspect, a combination of all three.

No matter how it started, the tradition manifests itself in the marriage of Native American dress, African color pallets, beaded artwork, African rhythms and movements, hand sewing, living theater role-play, prayer, and soulful resistance to racist oppression.

One of the most powerful experiences I have ever had happened inside practice a few weeks ago when, while on my knees trying to photograph, the visions of African tribes dancing and drumming entered my mind and I realized that the pulses of Africa are still thumping in New Orleans as the traditions, rhythms, and dances of the continent are manifested as ancient memories and acknowledged and nurtured in such heritage traditions as Indian masking... more to come on that sentiment, but I highly recommend this entire documentary, and especially the part about the Indians and their seemingly unconscious symbiotic relationship to the tribesmen of West Africa.

Watch This:

(A sneak peak of my images of Mardi Gras Indians. A Wild Man on the porch of the Backstreet Cultural Museum on Mardi Gras day 2007.)

Stay tuned.... the next post will try to explain just what it is that the Indians do.....

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