Yesterday was Sylvester Francis’ 70th birthday.
Not sure who he is? Well, let me tell you; he’s the founder of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which is mentioned in Bayou Fire (my current work in progress). This tiny museum, in a converted funeral parlor, contains the history of New Orleans’ Black Indian culture.
Throughout New Orleans’ early history, escaped slaves often hid among the local Biloxi, Seminole, and Choctaw native American tribes. They married and raised families with tribe members. Some sources claim that the tribes freed the slaves who intermarried with them. There was already a culture of free people of color in New Orleans by the mid-18th century, so this would not have been terribly unusual.
All of this was the historical basis for the first Mardi Gras Indian “krewe” parades in the 1890s.
At that time, the “tribes” were often rival gangs — and if one krewe ran into another, bloodshed was likely. Over time, a more ritualistic greeting replaced fighting and the rivalry became more friendly than anything else. Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana is considered the author of this peace. Today, the main competition is over the prettiness of the tribe’s suits.
Each suit is handmade over the course of the year by the person who will wear it (mostly men). They are designed with scenes that are meaningful to the wearer. The costumes reflect the tribal heritage of the wearer as well. Uptown/upriver tribes have their roots in the West Indies; their suits are made as flat mosaics. Downtown/downriver tribes have African roots, and make three-dimensional suits.
Generally, the suits were discarded each year, which is what led Sylvester Francis to start his museum. He didn’t like the idea of the art and artistry being lost.
Each tribe has dancers in traditional roles. First is the “spy boy,” whose suit is the lightest; he is the look-out. Next is the “flag boy,” who carries the tribe’s banner. The “wild man” carries a symbolic weapon, representing his protection of the elaborately-attired “big chief.”
Today there are 38 tribes. They parade on Mardi Gras and St. John’s Day by tradition, but also sometimes appear in full regalia for other festivals and parades.
If you watched HBO’s Tremé series, you saw an ongoing plot about a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Guardians of the Flame. You also heard some of the traditional music associated with parades. Here is a sample, performed by the Neville Brothers — who are themselves part of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe.
To learn more about Mardi Gras Indians, visit Mardi Gras New Orleans.
All photos in the article were taken by Sharon E. Cathcart.