Whilst we know New Orleans’ Mardi Gras as a festival full of outrageous costumes, impressive food, and eccentric music, it is certainly more than what meets the eye.
By Priyanka Shankar
Colourful beads, strings of dental floss, and a radio playing a tune called Indian Reid surround Horace Anderson as he sits on his porch, sewing a costume for Mardi Gras day.
He wanted to look the “prettiest” while parading down the streets of New Orleans for Southern Louisiana’s biggest carnival, Mardi Gras, before the start of the Lenten season.
Mr. Anderson, 42 years, is a native of New Orleans. He lives with his wife and two sons, working two jobs a day. But his real calling in life has always been that of a “Mardi Gras Indian.”
Mysterious but colourful and culturally rich, the Mardi Gras Indians are carnival revellers comprising a largely working class group of African Americans who wear elaborate costumes and dance through the streets of New Orleans.
“I was masked as a Mardi Gras Indian when I was just two weeks old and it is the only culture I know. When I get into my costume, I become a different person. I become spy boy Horace of the Creole Wild West, one of the Indian tribes,” says Mr. Anderson.
But the Indians trace their roots back to the 1800’s when slavery and racism in America also brought about cultural separations.
“Back then, the white man would not let us be part of the carnival season. So we would do our own thing and called it our own Mardi Gras,” explains Mr. Anderson. “It was only after the civil war of 1865 in America, that the Native Americans, helped us march our first parade in New Orleans as the Creole Wild West.”
Today, the Mardi Gras Indians have about 50 tribes named after the Native Americans who helped them escape tyranny and slavery. Each march to their own beats as chiefs, spy boys, flag boys, big chiefs or wild men of their tribes whilst competing with each other over which chief is the “prettiest.”
For Horace Anderson, being a part of this carnival society is not only something which honours a historical culture, but it is also something that saved his life.
“When I became a teenager I wanted to do other things like sell drugs to make money but I knew I couldn’t parade if I was in jail,” he says.
According to the 2016 youth data index of New Orleans, about 36.9% of children under eighteen lived in poverty in the city, exposing them to violence and economic hardships. But the Mardi Gras Indians have been playing an important role in helping the youth by “masking” them at a young age to prevent them from engaging in crime.
Besides the Creole Wild West tribe, Indian tribes like the Yellow Pocahontas collaborated with a few Mardi Gras Indian chiefs to engage youth in its cultural activities. Called the LEAF International NOLA Mardi Gras Indian Program, the project also helps revive black diaspora culture in the United States.
“People young and old know me and praise me for the good work I do. This cultural phenomenon does not help me make money but it has made me a good human being and that is why I bring in a lot of youngsters to march with us,” says Horace Anderson.
With Mardi gras day being celebrated on the 28th of February this year, Horace and his tribe are parading the streets with 5 newly recruited children. Each of their costumes tell a story and cost about $30,000. But Horace hopes the newly recruited members march and celebrate the carnival out of mere passion.
“For me, Mardi Gras is throughout the year. I march to make our culture thrive. If a youngster wants to mask as an Indian and shine in the costumes, you have to love the ideals of this carnival society. We are the real krewes of Mardi Gras.”
Priyanka Shankar is a journalist currently based in New York. She has reported for UN Radio and Reuters among others. She lives for an adrenaline rush and enjoys reporting stories that make markets move. When not working, you will find her rambling through mountains or scuba diving.