Happy Mardi Gras! If you’re down NOLA way (and still conscious) remember to grab Ankhie some beads!
Enjoy this excerpt from the wonderful Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook by Denise Alvarado and the music links in the list below.
The Mardi Gras Indians
There’s a great secret in New Orleans with regards to Voodoo hoodoo that is often overlooked. It is perhaps one of the most unique aspects of New Orleans culture, particularly during Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations. With their elaborate costumes and fabulous performances, the Mardi Gras Indians’ flamboyant displays sometimes cause the average onlooker to miss the important role they played in the history and shaping of New Orleans Voodoo hoodoo. Their contributions to the enduring Voodoo hoodoo tradition lie in the transmission of cultural knowledge via chants, dance, and music. Their authentic African rhythms are used in the rituals and celebrations of major Voodoo holidays and rituals.
Indeed, little is understood about the specific Mardi Gras Indian tribes and their activities outside of local legend. Only those who grew up in their neighborhoods would be aware of their presence and influence. New Orleans Mardi Gras is full of secret societies, and the Mardi Gras Indians are among them. They are tribal in every sense of the word; like in any tribe, or any gang for that matter, there are secrets to uphold and measures to be taken to ensure outsiders remain just that—outsiders.
The phrase “Mardi Gras Indians” is used for the benefit of outsiders, as the Indians do not refer to themselves as such, preferring to use “black Indian” or to identify as a member of a tribe. I remember hearing lies about the black Indians of New Orleans when I was growing up . . . they aren’t really Indians, they’re just masking up for Mardi Gras . . . they aren’t really fighting, they’re just putting on a show. Again, these are popular misconceptions put forth by the uninformed. According to Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias in a 2000 interview,
“At that time my mama wouldn’t let me mask—not with Brother Tillman, anyway. He was kind of rough. He’d come home at the end of Mardi Gras Day and his suit would be bloody, you know, he’d get into humbugs . . . Oh yeah, they were still fighting. But most of the time it would happen when they’d meet a gang from downtown, and I didn’t go that far.” (Sinclair, J. and Taylor, B. (2000). Wild Indians Down in New Orleans: an interview with Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias Blues Access 43. Retrieved January 10, 2011: http://www.bluesaccess.com/No_43/magnolias.html27 Sinclair, J. and Taylor, B. (2000). )
The masks worn by the Mardi Gras Indians honor the Native Americans that helped enslaved Africans to escape. Masking is also a means of acknowledging the mixed blood of Africans and Indians, an important part of African heritage overlooked when judging only by the color of one’s skin. They have their own Creole street language that is believed to be part Choctaw, part Yoruba, part French, part Spanish, and mostly unknown.
It is no coincidence that the Mardi Gras Indian tribes meet up at the street corner crossroads and proceed to walk through them while pounding out foot-stomping beats on the points of specific spirits, singing songs that call on various Voodoo spirits, and referencing military preparedness. Upon careful observation, one can see similarities between the black Indians of New Orleans and the Rara celebrations in Haiti, which begin on the eve of lent just as carnival ends.
There are more than fifty Mardi Gras Indian tribe names from in and around the New Orleans area. The oldest is Creole Wild West, founded in the eighteen hundreds. Some, like the Wild Squatoulas and Medallion Hunters, are no longer active. Others, such as Fi-Yi-Yi and Congo Nation, haven’t yet reached their peak. One thing is for sure: when it’s Mardi Gras time in the Crescent City, the streets are graced with colorful Indian costumes, confrontations, and call-and-response style chants and Indian second line rhythms. If you are ever in New Orleans during the Jazz & Heritage Festival or Mardi Gras, join the second line of the spectacular walk-around parades. You won’t be sorry.
During the rest of the year, there is warfare among Mardis Gras tribes and rival gangs. The main focus is turf—who is the strongest and the best—and all year long they prepare for the “show” by creating their elaborate costumes, which are second to none (the trannies of New Orleans run a close second, admittedly, but in my opinion no one will ever out-costume the Black Indians.
If you really want to get inside the psychology of the Black Indians, listen to their music. You will hear rhythms straight from Africa and learn about a culture that has changed little for 250 years. Listen to the songs listed below, as they provide a snapshot of an aspect of New Orleans culture that is intimately tied to the experiences of the original slave inhabitants of Louisiana.
•“Jockamo,” Sugar Boy Crawford & the Cane Cutters
•“My Gang Don’t Bow Down,” Flaming Arrows
•“Second Line Pt.1,” Bill Sinigal & the Skyliners
One of the most popular songs of the Mardi Gras Indians is “Iko Iko,” a song originally penned by Sugar Boy Crawford in November 1953 on Checker records and called “Jock-A-Mo.” The song tells of a “spy boy” or “spy dog” (a lookout) for one band of Indians encountering the “flag boy” for another band. He threatens to set the flag on fire. Many artists have covered the song and have sung the words phonetically and thus incorrectly, without understanding their meaning. In reality, no one really knows what they mean or what language it is, but there are many theories. According to Dr. John on the liner notes to his 1972 album, Dr. John’s Gumbo:
“Jockamo means “jester” in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and “second line” in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That’s dead and gone because there’s a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes
together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.”
Another theory is that Jockamo is actually an old African festival called Jonkonnu. It is believed that this festival began during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The slaves were allowed to leave the plantations during Christmas to be with their families and celebrate the holidays with African dance, music, and costumes. The tradition continued after emancipation and Junkanoo has evolved into an organized parade with sophisticated, elaborate costumes and unique music among people living in the Bahamas. It is also celebrated in Miami and Key West, Florida, where the local African American populations have their roots in the Bahamas.
Yet another theory is that Jockamo is a corruption of the word Jonkonnu, which is further adulterated when it is translated as “John Canoe.” John Canoe is said to be either the name of a slave trader or the name of an African tribal chief who demanded the right to celebrate with his people.
Okay, now let’s think about that one. If Jockamo is indeed an adulteration of John Canoe (or the other way around), is it logical to think that on the one day of the year that the slaves were allowed to celebrate, they were going to celebrate their enslavement? Were they really singing and dancing and partying with the name of a slave master? Do I need to point out the flaw in this theory?
I am more inclined to accept the theory that it is a derivative of the African festival Jonkonnu, or one pissed off tribal chief. Of course, my rejection of the slave master theory wouldn’t hold water from a scientific standpoint, because words cannot always be translated in isolation. We would have to look at the whole of the song to determine what it really means, and that’s just way beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say that what we have is a continuation of African and Indian traditions that hold much mystery to us all.