Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Iko Iko - A Visit to a New Orleans Indian Parade

In an effort to get in the spirit for a visit to see our friends Stuart Stoller and Novella Smith in New Orleans this past week, we decided to watch the first two seasons of the HBO series, Treme.  It's a fantastic show, by the same creators as the Wire, and it really gives you a sense of life in the city of New Orleans.  One aspect that I was particularly fascinated by was the Mardi Gras Indians, so when we got to New Orleans, one of our first stops was the Backstreet Cultural History Museum in the Treme, which houses a large number of Indian costumes.

We were excited to learn from the woman running the museum that there was actually going to be an Indian parade while we were visiting, in the old Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi river, so of course we decided to go and be a part of it.

I've done a little online research on the Mardi Gras Indians, so i could better understand the background of the tribes and their importance.  The Indian krewes began in the black neighborhoods of the city, when their residents were prevented from participating with the established white krewes in the Mardi Gras parades and celebrations.  They were based on the cultures of the native American Indians who helped support the escape and transition from slavery, combined with musical and costuming traditions that had come over from Africa.

The costumes that the Indian groups make themselves by hand are truly amazing, costing thousands of dollars, and taking as much as a year for the men to design and fabricate by hand.  Each costume involves sewing huge amounts of beads, feathers, sequins, and other materials.  Every year, they create a full new set of costumes in an effort to outshine the other tribes.  In addition to participating in the Mardi Gras festivities themselves, the Indians hold a large parade on Super Sunday, which is in late March, associated with the festival of St. Joseph.  We were fortunate enough to be part of a smaller gathering that just happened to be taking place during our visit.

In past times, these were often violent events, with clashes between the various tribes.  However, now these "clashes" are ritualized events, with music, dancing, and stylized competition, along with the real contest for creating the most beautiful and elaborate costumes.

Our experience was one that you really can't find in any other American city, so we were so pleased to have had the opportunity to be there.  We got to meet the Big Chief of the 7th Ward Mardi Gras Hunters, and to watch the marchers from one of the other tribes get dressed in their costumes.  The streets were packed with revelers, and there were lots of food carts and picnics going on all around us.

This is an important tradition within the unique culture of New Orleans, and one I hope can be maintained despite the financial and labor intensive burdens.  If you're interested in learning more, watch Treme to see Big Chief Albert Lambreaux and his krewe prepare and parade in their costumes, and check out the official website at www.neworleansindians.com.

Or, better still, head on down and experience it first hand as we were lucky enough to do.  Big thanks again to Stuart and Novella for making this happen for us.

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