The first time I was aware of the Mardi Gras Indians was the second episode of Treme when Clarke Peters emerges from a waterlogged bar to petition his neighbor for help. He is dressed like this:
I honestly thought it was some HBO magical realism shit, a dream sequence, perhaps, because it didn’t seem possible that black men of New Orleans actually don epic suits of beads and feathers and parade and dance through the streets of the Crescent City. Wouldn’t I have heard about it if they did? I’m pretty well-read, I took a bunch of African-American studies classes in college, I know some stuff….
Apparently not. Between the white privilege bubble and the we-only-care-about-what’s-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon bubble, the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians managed to fall through the cracks of my liberal arts education, despite majoring in what my mother semi-jokingly referred to “oppression studies.”
The Mardi Gras Indians have been masking in New Orleans for over a century. The origins are rather hazy, but the oral history passed down suggests that the first masking tribes were honoring the Native Americans who resisted the European infiltration of New Orleans and assisted escaping slaves. Every year, hundreds of black New Orleans men and boys spend 11 months sewing by hand phenomenally elaborate beaded and feathered suits. On Mardi Gras, they parade through the city in tribes, battling each other with song and dance and prettiness.
I spent this past weekend in New Orleans and between all the fried things I ate (including a truly outstanding crawfish beignet) we visited the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum created by Ronald Lewis (featured in Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, which you should read) to preserve the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
In the small trailer in the Lower Ninth that Lewis has packed with beadwork, photos, newspaper clippings, and feathered pieces, I was struck by how easy it would have been to go about my entire life and never be aware of the Mardi Gras Indians. What a fascinating and important subculture I would have missed learning about! What beautiful artwork I would have missed seeing! What stories I would have missed hearing!
From there, I started wondering about all of the other little hidden pockets of history and culture that I will likely never encounter. It seems safe to assume that New Orleans, though unique in oh-so-many ways is not the only city to house bands or tribes or communities of people doing surprising and surprisingly delightful art and work.
There must be dozens of subcultures and cultural institutions in Chicago that in seven years I’ve never even heard of. There are huge swaths of this city that I’ve never set foot in. I left the House of Dance and Feathers wondering how to go about exploring my own city better. What do you think? How do you find, learn about, and appreciate unique and little-known cultures in your city?
P.S. Want more on Ronald Lewis, Mardi Gras Indians, and The House of Dance and Feathers? Read Kim Green’s post over at The Greenery.
Related Post: How have I never seen Thelma and Louise?