Late in the afternoon on the final day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the six-day music event that everyone here calls Jazz Fest, red-, fuchsia- and purple-necked revelers in straw hats and baseball caps wandered between Steely Dan on the Acura Stage, the Greater Antioch Full Gospel Choir in the AIG Gospel tent and the Natchitoches meat pie stand. In the middle of this cultural smorgasbord, they were treated to a genuine embodiment of New Orleans vernacular street culture in the form of a parade by a Mardi Gras Indian Gang, the Black Feathers.
The parade started right on schedule, at 3 pm, next to the outdoor showroom tent in which shiny new Acuras were parked to attract passersby, beneath the big blue open sky above the New Orleans Fairgrounds, and framed against the city skyline in the distance, which, viewed closer, still bore the scars of Hurricane Katrina in the form of stories upon stories of broken windows in downtown office buildings and hotels. The gang strutted their stuff in elaborately sewn suits made of brightly colored beads and feathers covering them from head to toe. The first was all in green, with a large, sequinned fishtail sewn to his back. Then another, all in white, with careful embroideries of heroic deeds of Native Americans on his stomach and chest. Then the “Big Queen” in pink, came chanting and dancing down a paved path, lined on either side by people awed by this vision, to the rhythm of tambourines and drums.
Wanting a bit of this beauty, people asked the Indians if they would pose for pictures, and took home photos of themselves in shorts and T-shirts with a black man covered in a thousand beads sewn over the course of a year in a tradition that he likely learned from his father or uncle, or with the “flag boy,” with sweat pouring down a proud face framed in orange, with the gang’s beaded mantle, spelling out “7th Ward Gang Flag.”
Indeed, while many people paid $45 a day to come to Jazz Fest this year to see ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, New Edition (less Bobby Brown, sadly) or Rod Stewart, the soul of Jazz Fest, the thing that you can’t find just anywhere, is the distinct music and culture of this city, which is why the logo of the whole damn thing is four dancers with umbrellas and handkerchiefs doing a Second Line, the distinctive dance of the New Orleans streets. Though I think that Jazz Fest is swell–I go to as much as I can every year–and gives visitors access to living forms of American folk culture, it feels far from the Seventh Ward, the shotgun homes and Creole cottages of the Indians and St. Augustine Catholic Church, in the heart of the Treme neighborhood, where Big Chief Tootie Montana, the “Chief of the Chiefs,” was laid to rest two months before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, wearing a suit and tie but framed between two of his elaborate Indian suits.
Like many things in New Orleans, the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians aren’t crystal clear. Some say that the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians began 120 years ago, with black New Orleanians creating full Indian regalia based on pictures and Wild West shows that they had seen. Their rituals honor the role Native Americans played in helping slaves escape and elude bounty hunters, celebrating a historic sense of common cause between black New Orleanians and Native Americans. That tradition has remained alive in some of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods at parades on the high holidays of Mardi Gras Indian culture. They include St. Joseph’s Day, which comes every year on March 19; Mardi Gras, the day before the commencement of Lent on Ash Wednesday; and “Super Sunday,” a sort of Mardi Gras Indian Christmas, which occurs in late spring and is observed on different days by Mardi Gras Indians depending on whether they live in Uptown or Downtown neighborhoods. According to James Trask, a “spyboy” in the Red Hawk Hunters, whom I talked to in the hot sun of the Seventh Ward Festival, an arts and cultural event that occurred on a late spring weekend in a mostly black, poor, but proud old Creole enclave, the tradition is passed on within families and neighborhoods. “I learned to sew from my dad, the Big Chief of the Ninth Ward Flaming Arrows. It goes generation to generation; we pass it on,” he explained to me, before showing off his elaborate blue suit, which had taken him months to make, spending five hours a day after getting off work at Catholic Charities.