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Beyond "Super Sunday" 
The Legacy of Mardi Gras Indians 
by Alex Gatto

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The first time I saw the Indians was at a performance at Jazz Fest when I was just a boy, about 10 years old. I couldn't believe how cool it was-- the costumes were huge, amazing to me, a small kid-- and the colors so brilliant. I was immediately drawn in to the performance. The chanting and singing made me want to jump and shout right along with the quirky rhythms and strange words. I think what I really enjoyed, and still do to this day, was how the music spoke to me. 
Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.... Hey Pockyway!

Indian songs are interactive: the Big Chief, the head of each neighborhood tribe, sings a verse then the rest of the tribe and audience calls back a chorus. That day I sang and screamed out loud, not sure what I was saying or what the words meant, but I'll never forget the way it made me feel. 

"Wild Magnolias from way uptown, 

I got a gang that's gonna knock 'em down." 

The crowd sings in response: 

"Wild Magnolias got a golden crown." 

The tribal songs have been passed down from generation to generation, including a history of the tribes themselves, the legends of the chiefs, often including the unique language used by the Indians. It's a cross between street language and a bastardization of actual Native American terms that have been joined into a gumbo of meanings.
"My Gramma and your Gramma, 
Sittin' by the fire-- Oh, 
My Gramma told your Gramma, 
'I'm gonna set your place on fire'-- Oh, 
talkin' bout: Hey Now, Hey Now! 
Iko Iko I'n day 
Jocky mo fee nah nah I'n day 
Jocky mo fee nah nay." 
As a grown man, the experience of joining in an Indian celebration is more than just a voyeuristic participation; the event becomes transcendent, a part of New Orleans and as a native, it becomes a part of me. The sound and feeling of the music reminds me of the broken sidewalks uptown, where I grew up as a kid; it makes me remember the way the light of the streetlamps doesn't reach the sidewalks under the trees when you are walking at night. Indian music is a direct vocalization of the soul of New Orleans.
"Big Chief don´t want no stuff... 

Said the Big Chief want some pluck! 

Hey la hey la hey la hey..." 

While the feel is contemporary and the songs seem universal, the Mardi Gras Indians began costuming and parading over a hundred years ago. The first documented reference to the tribes was written in the 1880's. It began with the relationship between African-Americans and Native-Americans, beginning in the 1700's when the first slaves were brought to New Orleans. The Native-Americans were accepting of the displaced Africans, often helping them to escape and many intermarrying, thus joining the two communities. 
"Meet the boys on the battlefront... 

Beat the boys on the battlefront... 

Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some rump!" 

When Mardi Gras was becoming established here in the 1880's blacks were not allowed to participate in the white, mainstream celebration of the early Carnival Krewes and parades. In order to celebrate Carnival and in honor of the Native-American, the Mardi Indian Tribes were born. 
Indian tribal gatherings are an experience richly saturated in art. The closely-guarded designs of the costumes, which take all year to hand sew and which cost thousands of dollars to create, accentuate the dancing, singing of traditional songs, and bad-ass party atmosphere of the parading Indians on Mardi Gras Day. If you're familiar with New Orleans artists such as Dr. John, Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers or Jelly Roll Morton then you have heard the Indian Music. All of these artists have sung and made popular traditional Indian tunes.
I will never be allowed to become a Mardi Gras Indian, just as I will never be included in the prestigious old-line New Orleans Carnival Krewes of Comus, Momus or Rex. The Mardi Gras Indians are strictly for African-American families and Comus, Momus and Rex are made up of hand-selected, pedigreed white families. I fall in between as a native New Orleanian white, but only a third generation New Orleans family. 
These pictures were taken on "Super Sunday" which takes place in the spring on a Sunday near the Italian religious holiday, St. Joseph's Day, in honor of the tribe's affiliation with the New Orleans-Italian community. All of the neighborhood tribes gather at the beginning of Orleans Avenue to show down in a huge, vacant, green field on Bayou St. John. I was looking for my particular neighborhood tribe, "The Carrollton Hunters." I missed the Hunters along with my friend Dwight, who is Big Chief, but with the meandering parade routes and the unannounced schedules, all kept secret until the parade begins, it was nearly inevitable. It's my hope these photos capture the reverence, pride and unbelievable artistry the Indians offer to us, the outsiders, those just looking, yet still hearing and feeling the soul of New Orleans. 
Click Here to read a cool article about The Burning Man Festival.
Copyright © 2000 Alex Gatto. All rights reserved.
"Burning Man" Photo Copyright © 1999, 2000 Magic Glasses Camp. All rights reserved.
"Mardi Gras Indians" Photos Copyright © 1999, 2000 Alex Gatto. All rights reserved.

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