While sitting on a couch in West Virginia last month, steadily sifting through festival dead ends, broken Google links, outdated news articles, and 404 File Not Found messages, Ross stumbled upon an image of a black man in a blue full body Indian headdress. The photograph was taken in New Orleans and it was part of an article about “Indian Sunday” where groups of black men and women parade in the streets on the Sunday before the feast of St. Joseph during Lent. Immediately, we knew this was exactly the kind of event AFP wanted to photograph. So we called the journalist and she plugged us in with Jermain Cooper Bossier , Kabrisha Gauthier, and the 7th Ward Creole Hunters.
Because we were out catching rattlesnakes we couldn’t get to New Orleans by Sunday when the various tribes around the city come out and “mask” as Indians. But as we were told, the real action was the evening of St. Joseph’s and so that’s when we arrived. On this night, tribes from around the city gather on one street corner and face off for friendly and sometimes heated encounters. Each tribe is expected to have their costumes ready by Mardi Gras and so the term “Mardi Gras Indians” has stuck for this group but the celebration extends past “carnival.”
The history of the event has its origins in antebellum Louisiana when Native American tribes assisted in slave revolts and supported slaves escaping to freedom. Indian bloodlines became mixed in the mashup of ancestries that became Creole lineage and tribal culture found its way into multi-ethnic social groups. In the late 19th century, “Indian Sunday” became an annual event for descendants to honor and celebrate their Indian ancestry and pay respect to the natives who helped to free slaves. But clashes between tribes could be extremely violent as they embraced tribal warfare tactics. Now in 2009, the spy boys, flag boys, and wild men who all serve to protect the chief mostly function as symbols of the tradition’s bloody past. Still, when tribes face off today, encounters are fierce and the challenge to be the bigger, prettier, and more revered chief doesn’t always end amicably.
Just before sundown, we left the 7th Ward with the Creole Hunters and walked 3 miles towards uptown New Orleans where all the tribes were gathering. With the exception of stopping moving traffic at each crossing, the march was mostly uneventful.
But when we turned our final corner, the energy radically changed. Drumming and shouting filled the air, and the streetlights poured down on hordes of colorful dancers. Spectators gathered on the sides to watch as chiefs went face to face, refusing to back down from one another, yelling out phrases of intimidation. And almost as soon as we arrived, a fight broke out and we saw one chief spitting blood out of his mouth. But with cops on hand and older chiefs mediating, the squirmish subsided and the party began.
It was a night of color and celebration that was truly unique in our travels. We feel so lucky to have been part of this incredible event and to have been welcomed in by Jermain and his tribe. The men and women who spend an entire year on their costumes are the reason we were able to take such beautiful images.
Check out the video too. It’s a little longer than usual, but there was a lot of history we wanted to provide.