Photo by James Cage, via Flickr.
For the Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans’s most important celebration is less about boozing and bead-throwing than making incredible costumes. Comprised of different “tribes” of black New Orleans residents (many of Creole descent), the group leads one of the city’s most spectacular Carnival events, with each member wearing stunning homemade suits that appropriate the aesthetics of Native American dress. The participants spend months sewing outfits to debut during an annual march held on the “Super Sunday” before Fat Tuesday—the last day of Mardi Gras before Lent begins. (This year, it falls on March 18.) Though New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras for weeks and hosts innumerable fetes, the Mardi Gras Indians’ parades—replete with drums and chants—are still a major spectacle.
The participants are unlikely craftsmen. Comprised of teachers, carpenters, and blue collar workers, the Mardi Gras Indians sew elaborate suits to rival the feats of professional costume designers. While men dominate the tribes, women can become Mardi Gras Indian “queens” who make their own costumes and “mask” on Super Sunday.
Darryl Montana wearing a Mardi Gras Indian costume in New Orleans. Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
The clothing features bright feathers, beads, and embroidery. Blues, pinks, and yellows abound: the brighter the better. Material plumes from the wearers, the impressive volume making the constructions sculptural. Headdresses soar into the air, while staffs and shields serve as complementary props. Some costumes rely on more abstract designs, while others are more graphic. Animals, people, and full desert scenes appear in intricate detail. The language woven into the suits (“Big Chief,” “Mohawk”) and the names the participants adopt all confirm the Native American inspiration.
Indeed, the entire project hinges on a kind of reverent cultural appropriation. Legend relays that Native Americans once harbored escaped slaves, and the cultures began mingling and intermarrying. “It’s all one,” said Darryl Montana, who has been taking part in the tradition for decades, and whose handiwork is on view as part of the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans. “There was always a relationship between the natives and the blacks.”
The two groups shared certain practices in common, such as giving gifts and living off the land. A competing theory, though, suggests that it was the sensationalized depictions of Native Americans in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show that inspired the tradition. (The first tribe name, according to Montana, was “Creole Wild West.”) Whatever their origin—most sources date the first Mardi Gras Indian procession to the late 1800s—the costumes have evolved into fantastic displays far removed from any concrete historical reality.
If it sounds fun to construct one of these suits, Montana suggested otherwise. It’s a rigorous duty, he said, a sacrifice and a lifetime commitment. He began sewing when he was six years old, making his first suit when he was nine. Montana spoke proudly about his family’s legacy. His late father, “Tootie” Montana, was the revered Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas “Hunters” tribe. Darryl, a fourth generation participant, subsequently assumed the role. “Between my father and myself, we’ve dressed a hundred years,” he told Artsy. Each year, he spends up to $5,000 on his costume. “Around September, my life only consists of going to work and going home to sew.”
One of his suits can require 300 yards of marabou (down feather trimming) and three pounds of feathers. It’s exhausting to assemble it all. Each feather requires individual wrapping and decoration with a smaller feather called a “tip.” When he puts on the suit, Montana feels like a different person, a spiritual energy overwhelming him. Yet he wouldn’t wish the time-consuming process on his worst enemy. “This stuff is an ass-kicker,” he said. His back hurts. But when the day comes to finally reveal the construction, the resulting glory makes the toil worthwhile.
These days, the Mardi Gras Indian parade is a celebrated point of pride for the city, but years ago, violence pervaded the marches. Knife fights and score-settling between rival factions was common. Now, said Montana, the tribes “fight with needle and thread”; the costumes themselves “separate the men from the boys.” The very concept of masculinity for the Mardi Gras Indians is deeply tied to sartorial prowess. Here, there’s nothing manlier than tailoring bright, elaborate garments. Grown men boast their own prettiness.
A detail of a Mardi Gras Indian costume by Darryl Montana, included as part of Prospect.4. Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
For decades the individual tribes have met at A.L. Davis Park every Super Sunday. Individual constituents have different ranks (“chief,” “spy boy,” “trail chief”) and can only convene with those in different tribes who hold the same positions. The different positions face off in a kind of dance. Finally, the chiefs come to the center to meet-and-greet. It was at this point that, in more chaotic times, the fighting used to start. Still, said Montana, contemporary Mardi Gras Indians are “playing a wargame,” albeit of a different sort. Now, what’s hurt is the pride of the losing dressers.
Montana said that during the rest of the year, a tribe shows solidarity by hosting picnics or planning fundraisers to collect donations toward suit materials. At times, Montana and his friends will aid in each other’s constructions. But for any Mardi Gras Indian to really gain respect or expect inclusion, you must “get your homework done, and your homework is making a suit,” he said. You could be meeting with your tribe every day, but what’s most important is that you have something to show on Super Sunday. The activity is still a “competitive sport.”
Montana and his fellow Mardi Gras Indians instruct new generations on how to carry on the tradition. He claimed that he’s taught suit-designing to over 3,000 children since 1997. After Hurricane Katrina hit, he relocated to Texas where he continued teaching. The disaster, according to Montana, made the Mardi Gras Indians more committed to their tradition. They more deeply appreciated what they’d had in the city. “There’s no place like home,” said Montana. Right now, he’s working on a suit for a museum exhibition that will celebrate New Orleans’s 300th anniversary.
But this Super Sunday, as Montana approaches his 63rd birthday, he’ll be sitting on the sidelines. “2017 was my last year to physically dress for Carnival,” he said. “I’m retired.”