This post provides an excerpt about Mardi Gras Indians' history and culture from George Lipsitz's 1990 book Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (University of Minnesota Press).
These excerpted pages are prefaced by a brief quote from another online article about New Orleans second line parading traditions- Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals by Helen A. Regis.
This excerpt provides information about the history of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians as well as information and information and comments about studies about Mardi Gras Indian.
The content of this post is provided for historical, folkloric, and cultural purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to Mardi Gras Indians past and present. Thanks also to George Lipsitz and thanks to Helen A. Regis, and all others who are quoted in this post.
From http://www.academicroom.com/article/second-lines-minstrelsy-and-contested-landscapes-new-orleans-afro-creole-festivals "Second Lines In New Orleans" by Helen A. Regis (pages 494, 495)
"Illuminating comparisons to New Orleans popular performance traditions can be found in the Caribbean, in West Africa, and throughout the African Diaspora. Readings in the field of African performance [a number of researchers are cited] have stimulated many of the interpretations forwarded here. But the search for transoceanic connections becomes problematic when it threatens to erase local political, economic, and religious structures, or when it privileges the archaeology of the past as a source of semantic criticism over the lived presence of living cultural practitioners. The meaning of the New Orleans second line must be grasped through in-depth ethnographic research, and, though its place in Afro-diasporic culture should be examined and analyzed, this must not obscure the lived experience of participants who sponsor these events at great personal cost and with great devotion to promulgating the values that sustain the tradition. Too often in "textual" analysis of diasporic performance [a research example is cited] the experiences of participants is erased, their performances treated as formalized stage plays, and their own agency silenced under the critic's rhetorical flourish. By failing to examine local realities as they impinge on the lived experiences of participants such "textual" analysis of performance traditions also erase the agency of living, breathing human beings who "work it" in the streets."
BOOK EXCERPT: "TIME PASSAGES: COLLECTIVE MEMORY AND AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE" BY GEORGE LIPSITZ
[Note: These pages from Google Books are presented as is, excerpt for citation numbers for notes.]
"The Mardi Gras Indian narrative does not take the form of pure narrative-of a sequence of events taking place over time in a cause-and-effect relationship-but its central occurring theme is a story of heroic warriors resisting domination. The Indians tell about past Mardi Gras days when challenges from other groups forced them to bring to the surface the bravery and solidarity they must repress in everyday life. Song lyrics, chants, and costumes celebrate brave tribes who “won’t kneel, won’t bow, and don’t know how.” This Indian imagery draws on many sources. In slavery times, Indian communities offered blacks a potential alternative to a society in which to be black was to be a slave and to be free was to be white. In New Orleans, black slaves mingled with Indians in local markets, and interactions between Native American Indians and blacks gave many
Louisiana blacks a historical claim to a joint Indian and Afro-American heritage. In addition, more than twenty spiritualist churches in New Orleans venerate the Native American Indian Chief Black Hawk as a martyr, in keeping with the teaching of Leith Anderson, a half Mohawk woman who preached the doctrine of “spirit returning”. But the evidence tying the Mardi Gras Indians to direct Indian ancestry is slight. Mardi Gras “tribes” wear the headdresses of Plains Indians, not of Southeastern Indians, and with the exception of some styles of bead work, few of their practices replicate the crafts of local Native American Indian tribes. South American and Caribbean carnival traditions feature Indians prominently, and some of the New Orleans chants more closely resemble French and Spanish carnival phrases than they do any known Native American Indian tongue. As one Mardi Gras Indian told a researcher
"We’re not real Indians, we just masquerade as Indians really, and we just give our tribe a name, and different positions, and things like that."....
In fact, the touring “Wild West” shows of Buffalo Bill Cody and other late nineteenth-century popular cultural entrepreneurs were probably the real impetus for the creation of these mock Indian tribes. Carnival parades began in New Orleans in 1827, but blacks did not generally dress up as Indians until Becate Baptiste formed the Creole Wild West in the early 1880s. Donning headdresses and face paint enabled Afro-Americans to circumvent the local laws that made it illegal for blacks to wear masks, but the Indian imagery had important symbolic meaning for them as well. One former chief of the Golden Blades tribe suggests that both blood ties and consumer tastes played a role in the formation of an early Indian tribe, telling a reporter “In 1895 Sam Tillman got the idea to mask Injun by seeing a Wild West show that came through N’Awlins. Brother Tillman came from Indians himself, and in 1897 he started the [Yellow] Pocahontas tribe."...
...[quoting John] Chernoff “The music [of the Mardi Gras Indians] works more by encouraging social interaction and participation at each performance than by affirming a fixed set of sanctioned concepts or beliefs.”
But it is not merely an abstract philosophy that emerges from the Indian music, the musical forms employed by the tribes reflect concrete social relations. Thus the “call and response” between the leader and the tribe in “Handa Wanda” represent the symbiotic relationship between the leader and the group…
...Similarly the 1930 chant by the Wild Squatoolas, “Somebody’s got to sew sew sew,” became transformed in the 1960s by the Wild Magnolias to “Everybody’s got soul, soul, soul”. The imprecision of “Indian talk” might not engender confidence in the idea of language as a central feature of the Mardi Gras Indian ritual. After all, if the origins of words remain obscure, and if words change overtime, how can we be sure that speakers know the significance of what they are saying? It is likely that the tribes and their followers are not exactly aware of the denotative meaning of every word they use. But in another sense the use of this language in collective rituals conveys a greater meaning than can be found in the individual words themselves. Another African example might help illumine the consciousness between this approach to language. Chernoff interviewed a famous Ghanaian musician known as “The Entertainer” about the meaning of his songs:
”When I asked him what the songs he sang were about, he said he really didn’t understand some of them, that he would have to go ask the old men who had given him the proverbs which he had set into music. People from various walks of live told me that “The Entertainer”'s songs were in “deep Dagbani” which they could not “hear”. They did not have to understand the songs to be moved, but nevertheless, they valued the songs’ expressions of their deepest traditional sentiments. What was important to them was that the songs had a depth which they enjoyed trying to interpret even while they acknowledged that the songs were often beyond them. In effect, the music does and does not rely on a specific traditional meaning.”
Just as African audiences value the traditions conveyed by The Entertainer, Mardi Gras Indians and their audiences profit from the cultural legacies of the past, even while adapting them to the present. Mardi Gras traditions are not a matter of establishing precise origins or maintaining authentic folk forms; rather, they seek to unite the presence with the past in a dynamic, yet continuous process. Words and names often play key roles in building that unity. When new tribes form, they often connect themselves to the past by using the name of a disbanded tribe. Yet, they only do so if they can locate the disbanded Indian chief and secure his permission.
Song lyrics also connect contemporary herorism to traditional figures. Thus the Wild Tchapatoulas’ “Brother John” pay tribute to John “Scarface” Williams (a rhythm-and-blues singer and Mardi Gras Indian who died from a knifing shortly after carnival in 1972) by comparing him to “Cora” who “died on the battlefield”. An earlier song by Willie Turbington of the Wild Magnolias based on a chant by the Magnolia’s chief Bo Dollis, told the story of a rebellious slave named Cory. In the 1920s jazz musician Danny Barker recorded a song "Corrine Died on the Battlefield," a song which Paul Longpre of the Golden Blaze claims told the story of a woman named Cora Anne who masked as a queen of the Battlefield Hunters, but who died of gunshot wounds incurred when she got caught in the crossfire between the Hunters and the Wild Squatoolas. Cora thus refers to at least four people living more than one hundred years apart, three of them male, and one female. The story touches on the histories of at least five tribes and appeared in four separate songs. There is no one authentic Corey; the purpose of all this borrowing is precisely to fashion a collective narrative embracing a wide range of actual events and individual. No one lyricist or story-teller can control the narrative about Corey; it filters through the community, undergoing significant changes, yet retaining important continuities.
Language, costumes, and music combine to shape the fused art of the Mardi Gras Indian pageantry, but it is largely through dancing that each of these separate forms become part of a larger totality. Indians who chant “two way pockaway” (“get out of the way”) will dance differently from those chanting “handa wanda” (“we’re not looking for trouble”). Dancing offers an opportunity to display the beauty of one’s costume; conversely, costume design anticipates the movement of street dancing. Musical selections not only have their own lyrics, melodies, and rhythms, but they also have specific dance steps that accentuate their other meanings.
In recent years, dancing has taken one even greater importance among Mardi Gras Indians as a symbolic form of combat. At one time the tribes carried real hatchets and spears and used the aggressive festivity of carnival as a cover for gang warfare. After a day of drinking and marching they would meet to settle grudges and rivalries on the “battlefield”-an empty lot at the intersection of Claiborne and Poydras streets. But when urban renewal destroyed the basis for neighborhood competitions, and when police vigilance
made violent acts on carnival day more difficult, a new spirit began to emerge. Aesthetic rivalries took the place of street fighting, and dancing became a key way of demonstrating one’s superiority over others. When Indians challenge each other in the streets, they draw an imaginary line between them and compete by dancing as close as possible without crossing. Their dance enacts a mock fight replete with attacks on territory and each other’s bodies. The dancers capable of giving the appearance of fighting without resorting to actual combat win the highest esteem from their tribe and from spectators.
The transformation of actual violence into symbolic aesthetic competition has many precedents and parallels in Afro-American communities all across the nation, but it has a special history in New Orleans."...
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