The Mardi Gras Indians

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Masking Mardi Gras Indian: Photo Credit: neworleans.com1

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

When one thinks of New Orleans, one of the first things that comes to mind is Mardi Gras. Over the years, Carnival has become one of the most recognizable celebrations in New Orleans and Louisiana culture. The New Orleans Mardi Gras Season begins on January 6th, known as Twelfth night or the Feast of the Epiphany for many Christian denominations. The celebrations last through Mardi Gras day, the date of which changes from year to year depending on the Christian liturgical calendar and the position of the holy day of Ash Wednesday.2

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to Medieval Europe to celebrations in both Rome and Venice. The tradition travelled to France in the 17th and 18th centuries and then spread to the French colonies. On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived on a plot of land south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras when he and his men realized that it was the eve of the holiday. In 1702, Bienville established Fort Louis de la Louisiane, now Mobile, Alabama, and in 1703 the settlement celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras. Bienville founded the City of New Orleans in 1718 and by the 1730s, the festival of Mardi Gras was celebrated openly throughout the city. A century later, New Orleans Carnival celebrations featured street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders. The concept of floats and masked balls were introduced in 1856 and the first recorded evidence of Mardi Gras “throws” came in 1871.3

However, from these early years up until the 1990’s, Mardi Gras was an extremely segregated event. Krewes, events, and parades were often divided along color lines, with African Americans being barred from joining many of the traditionally white krewes and prevented from having their own krewes parade along the same routes as the white ones. In fact, it was not until Emancipation, the end of the Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment that African American people were even legally allowed to congregate without intense supervision or participate in Mardi Gras festivities. 4 Due to these restrictions, many communities rallied together to form their own traditions and solidified themselves as culture bearers for the City of New Orleans.

In celebration of Black History Month and the Mardi Gras Season, The Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office would like to highlight a selection of our city’s culture bearers. While looking at the history of these groups, we would also like to highlight our collection of notarial records, such as acts of incorporation, property sales, and property transfers, that illustrate how these groups formed and interacted with their communities. In this blog, we will highlight The Mardi Gras Indians.

The Mardi Gras Indians

The Mardi Gras Indians, while being entirely recognizable, are one of the more mysterious and fascinating parts of New Orleans’ culture. There are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes scattered throughout the city and they take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day, Super Sunday, and St. Joseph’s day in their well known, elaborate hand-beaded and feathered suits to perform chants and “battle” with other tribes they meet along their march. When they do meet a rival tribe, the two chiefs compete with one another by shouting boasts and insults at one another and displaying their intricately detailed suits. Each tribe is tied to a specific community and neighborhood, making membership more exclusive than other cultural traditions. Membership in a tribe is voluntary and is based on social networking and invitation rather than birthright. Each tribe has a hierarchical structure made up of the tribal leader, known as the Big Chief, his assistants or Second Chiefs, a Spy Boy who marches well ahead of the chiefs to seek out other tribes and the Flag Boy who notifies the Big Chief of the presence of a rival tribe. 5

Darryl Montana. Photo Credit: Eric Waters and 64Parishes.org6

The true origins of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition are unknown and contested. However, there are two origin stories that are the most accepted among researchers and the Indians themselves. The first claims that the history begins prior to the Civil War. During this period, many enslaved people sought refuge with nearby Native American tribes such as the Houma and Chitimacha. Many assert that this relationship forged a kinship that caused the two cultures, enslaved Africans and Native tribes, to intermingle, as evidenced through the Mardi Gras Indians’ adoption of Native music, dance, chant and ceremonial dress. 7 However, concrete evidence tying the Mardi Gras Indian tradition to direct Native ancestry is scant. The New Orleans tribes wear headdresses and costumes that are more akin to the ceremonial dress of Plains Indians, not the Southeastern Native tribes, which leads to the second origin story.8 In the winter of 1884-1885, the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show came to New Orleans for a period of four months and held regular performances that were often attended by minority, working class people. 9 The show portrayed and marketed messages of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny and graphically depicted the conquest of the Plains Indians. The African Americans who went to watch it felt sympathetic toward the the plight of the Plains Indians and identified with their struggle. The show also exposed African American communities to actual Plains Indians as roughly sixty were employed by the Buffalo Bill show, including four tribal chiefs. The native people employed by the show would often be seen on the streets of the city in their ceremonial dress. 10 It is commonly accepted that the present-day Mardi Gras Indian tribes first appeared around 1885, with the first tribe considered to be the “Creole Wild West, founded by Becate Batiste.11 Due to the timing of the tradition’s appearance and the first tribe’s name, it is safe to assume that the presence of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in New Orleans had a profound effect on the founders of the original tribes. While the origin narrative is unclear, the central theme is a story of warriors resisting domination, and that was something that resonated with the founding members of Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Cover art for the 1976 album Wild Tchoupitoulas by the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe of the same name. Photo Credit: Discogs.com12

As previously mentioned, there are currently more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes, and many of their origins and traditions are heavily guarded secrets. One prominent tribe is the Wild Tchoupitoulas. The Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe was founded in 1974 by George Landry, known as Big Chief Jolly. In 1976, the tribe released a self-titled album produced by its members, including prominent New Orleans musicians the Neville Brothers. 13 On November 5, 1980, representatives of the tribe appeared before Notary George A. Wigginton to officially incorporate the organization.

Act of Incorporation of The Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians. Wigginton, George A. 1980 November 5. NA#397782

According to Article III of the act, seen in the image below, the object and purposes of the organization are “to dress in handmade costumes and to march in the streets as a unit during these times. For the enjoyment and entertainment of ourselves and the general public. To foster, protect and promote the welfare and interest of all of those engaged in this activity and to protect and encourage such activity by establishing closer ties and association among the members.”

Articles III and IV of the Act of Incorporation of The Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians. Wigginton, George A. 1980 November 5. NA#397782

This act of incorporation was signed by leaders of the tribe, including Johnny Deggs, who was designated as Big Chief of The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Tom Jackson, 2nd Chief, and Thomas “Amos” Landry, Secretary/Treasurer.

Seven years later, on July 22, 1987, Johnny Deggs appeared before notary Alvarez T. Ferrouillet, Jr. with ten of his fellow Big Chiefs to form the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council, Inc.

Articles of Incorporation of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Ferrouillet, Jr., Alverez T. 1987 July 22. NA#894200

This council was designed to represent the individual Mardi Gras Indian tribes as a unit. Article II, seen in the image below, specifies the purpose of the corporation. It also states that “this corporation has an additional purpose: to preserve the culture heritage of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians; to promote and support culture activities that involve Mardi Gras Indians ie. Mardi Gras, Indian Sunday and Saint Joseph’s Night.”

Article II of Articles of Incorporation of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Ferrouillet, Jr., Alverez T. 1987 July 22. NA#894200

Article IV states that “the corporation would be governed by a Council of Chiefs of not less than five nor more than fifteen members. This council would be made up of a handful of Big Chiefs from the various Mardi Gras Indian tribes in the city. The first council was made up of eleven members, whose names and tribes can be seen in the image below.

First council of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Articles of Incorporation of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Ferrouillet, Jr., Alverez T. 1987 July 22. NA#894200

On November 9, 2018, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council appeared before the notary Edward T. Suffern Jr. to execute an act of transfer and conveyance of 2606 LaSalle Street from the Foundation for Louisiana and FFL Investments to the council. In this transfer, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council granted the Foundation for Louisiana and FFL Investments the right of first refusal for any sale or other transfer of the property.

Act of Transfer and Conveyance. Suffern Jr., Edward T. 2018 November 9. NA#2018-43690

In the property description for 2606 LaSalle Street. There is a 1983 survey of the property completed by Gilbert, Kelly & Couturie, Inc. That survey, which is annexed to an act before notary Roy A. Casey on May 27, 1983, can be seen below.

Survey Annexed to an Act of Sale. Casey, Roy A. 1983 May 27. NA#497037

On December 10, 2019, the notary Edward T. Suffern Jr. executed a second act of transfer and conveyance from the Foundation for Louisiana and FFL Investments to the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. Here, the Foundation for Louisiana transferred 2608 LaSalle St, the property adjacent to 2606 LaSalle. Again, the transfer was subject to a right of first refusal in favor of the Foundation for Louisiana and FFL Investments for any future sales or transfer of the property.

Act of Transfer and Conveyance. Suffern Jr., Edward T 2019 December 10. NA#2019-49452

The property description, seen in the image above, mentions a 1979 survey of the property that the Mardi Gras Indian Council acquired in 2019. That survey found annexed to an act before notary James A. Smith on May 17, 1979, can be seen below.

Survey for 2608 LaSalle Street. Act of Sale. Smith, James A. 1979 May 17. NA#330128
Charter Houses for the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council. 2606 and 2608 LaSalle Street. Photo courtesy of Google Maps. Image captured August 2019.

The many tribes of Mardi Gras Indians have firmly established themselves as culture bearers to the City of New Orleans. They do not announce were they will be on their designated days of celebration but to see a tribe perform or “battle” with another tribe is certainly a spectacle to behold and something that both residents and visitor alike actively seek out.

The various tribes of Mardi Gras Indians can be seen in numerous locations on Mardi Gras Day, March 1st, Super Sunday which takes place on the Sunday Closest to St. Joseph’s Day, St. Joseph’s Day itself which falls on March 19th, and occasionally during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, currently scheduled for April 29-May 8, 2022. Check out our final Culture Bearers blog on the Jugs Social Club-Krewe of NOMTOC on February 18th.

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to various different New Orleans culture bearers and carnival organizations. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

References:
  1. “Mardi Gras Indians,” Things to Do, NewOrleans.com, accessed on January 5, 2022, https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/music/history-and-traditions/mardi-gras-indians/.
  2. Carolyn Heneghan, “A Brief History of Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” North America/USA/Louisiana, Culture Trip, accessed January 5, 2022. https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/louisiana/articles/a-brief-history-of-mardi-gras-in-new-orleans/.
  3. “Mardi Gras History,” Mardi Gras New Orleans, accessed January 11, 2022, https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/.
  4. Nile Pierre and Hugo Fajardo. “Mardi Gras in color: revealing the historical divide of krewes,” The Tulane Hullabaloo, last modified January 31, 2018, https://tulanehullabaloo.com/35981/intersections/mardi-gras-color-revealing-historical-divide-krewes/.
  5. Matt Sakakeeny, “Mardi Gras Indians,” 64 Parishes, accessed on January 6, 2022, https://64parishes.org/entry/mardi-gras-indians.
  6. Matt Sakakeeny, “Mardi Gras Indians,” 64 Parishes, accessed on January 6, 2022, https://64parishes.org/entry/mardi-gras-indians.
  7. “Black Mardi Gras Resistance and Resilience and the Preservation of History in New Orleans” Big Easy Magazine, accessed on January 11, 2022, https://www.bigeasymagazine.com/2020/02/29/black-mardi-gras-resistance-resilience-and-the-preservation-of-history-in-new-orleans/.
  8. George Lipsitz, “Mardi Gras Indians: Carnival and Counter-Narrative in Black New Orleans,” Cultural Critique no. 10 (Autumn 1988): 103.
  9. Michael P. Smith, “Buffalo Bill and the Mardi Gras Indians,” in Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Reading in Louisiana Culture, ed. Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 42-43.
  10. Michael P. Smith, “Buffalo Bill and the Mardi Gras Indians,” in Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Reading in Louisiana Culture, ed. Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 44-45.
  11. Michael P. Smith, “Buffalo Bill and the Mardi Gras Indians,” in Mardi Gras, Gumbo, and Zydeco: Reading in Louisiana Culture, ed. Marcia Gaudet and James C. McDonald (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 47-48.
  12. “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” Discogs, accessed on January 19, 2022, https://www.discogs.com/release/1386802-The-Wild-Tchoupitoulas-The-Wild-Tchoupitoulas.
  13. Bryan Wagner, ““The Wild Tchoupitoulas”—The Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976)” Library of Congress, accessed on January 19, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/WildTchoupitoulas.pdf.

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