St. Joseph’s night, New Orleans–a battle between the Mardi Gras Indian tribes

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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sitting on a couch in West Virginia last month, steadily sifting through festival dead ends, broken Google links, outdated news articles, and 404 File Not Found messages, Ross stumbled upon an image of a black man in a blue full body Indian headdress.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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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Posted by Ross, posted on 03/25/2009 at 12:55am. Bookmark this post.

17 Comments

  1. Posted 03/25/2009 at 8:47am
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    Julie:

    These pictures were really interesting. The history of the event feels American yet the photos are almost absurd. Do you know how the costumes’ bright colors and occassional tusks came about?

  2. Posted 03/25/2009 at 12:14pm
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    nitsyrk:

    ….Sheesh! We just might have to order more prints! There are just too many amazing pictures to choose from.

  3. Posted 03/25/2009 at 10:54pm
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    Dawn:

    Amazing pictures – the colors are incredible! The video was great too. I almost didn’t watch it because it’s a little longer, but it was completely worth the time – completely fascinating festival.

  4. Posted 03/29/2009 at 5:49pm
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    JERMAINE COOPER BOSSIER:

    love the video hope 2 see u guys again and thanx 4 not being scared

  5. Posted 03/29/2009 at 5:51pm
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    nitsyrk:

    I hadn’t gotten a chance to watch the video until just now, but it was absolutely incredible. Their suits were so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. I’m so appreciative to have gotten to see this even if second hand. Thanks for the hard work, and sharing such beautiful and hidden parts of our country.

  6. Posted 04/11/2010 at 6:38pm
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    April Jennings-Gabriel:

    I have known Jermaine most of my life and I am so proud of him for becoming Big Chief. I am so happy that some of the most influential and beautiful parts of our history here in New Orleans have been shared with the rest of the world. This is something about New Orleans that most outsiders are not familiar with and yet is a tradition as old as our city. Thank you for making people aware of our more positive attributes.

  7. Posted 06/18/2010 at 3:43pm
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    Edee:

    If it were not for the HBO series TREME, I would not have any knowledge about the black indians of New Orleans. The costumes and traditions are very unique and we need to know just how history, tradition, and cultures are a very major part of that city.
    I looked up Black Indians on line and found this site.

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