In 'Treme', Race and Class Loom Large
By Latoya Peterson
Adrienne Keene, of the Native Appropriations blog, discusses the aspects of both appropriation and respect that inform the longstanding tradition:
Considering that many people are not aware that Mardi Gras celebrations were ever segregated, the display of a notably black tradition and references to NOLA's indigenous peoples on HBO is a major coup.
These people are supposedly honoring the tribes who took in their ancestors--e.g., the Choctaw. If that's so, why not name and dress themselves like Choctaws? What do the showgirl outfits and the goofy names like Yellow Pocahontas have to do with the actual Indians who saved them?
Even mascot lovers usually get that much right. If they're "honoring" Plains chiefs, they dress like Plains chiefs. They don't dress like Indians from New York, Florida, or California.
Indians and Blacks equal?
Peterson and Keene float similar theories based on blacks and Indians being together at the bottom of New Orleans society. Like sisters, blacks and Indians could share clothes because they shared a history. Neither group had any power, so the dress-up game wasn't a power trip.
Since no one knows the krewes' history for sure, let me float my own theory.
In New Orleans's mixed society, blacks weren't just slaves and beggars. They were seeded throughout the lower, middle, and even some of the upper classes. In contrast, Indians truly lived on the margins of New Orleans society. They were equal to the poorest blacks, yes, but many blacks weren't poor.
So blacks dressing as Indians in the Mardi Gras sent the same message it sends in every other context. The same message that whites send when they dress up as Wampanoag Indians in Thanksgiving pageants. Namely:
If you don't think this is going on, show me some genuine American Indians dressed in stereotypical African American costumes. Show me some blacks dressed as outlandish "blacks" or Indians dressed as outlandish "Indians." Show me some real Indians, period.
If these two groups are expressing their mutual marginalized history, where are the real Indians and the phony blacks? Why does the mimicry go in only one direction? Where exactly is the sharing in this "shared" history?
Then there are the Mayokis and Chasco "Indian" krewes in Florida--white people who do the same thing as the black people of New Orleans. Not to mention all the white Halloween parties and YMCA-style programs across the nation. These whites don't have the same shared history with Indians, so what's their excuse for playing dress-up?
You're telling me blacks and whites both play-act as Indians, but it's just a coincidence? One is a genuine expression of history and the other is a complete mockery? I don't think so.
I won't even go into how the "Indian" krewes compete for fame and fortune. If they've ever shared a jot of Louisiana Indian lore, I must've missed it. The Mardi Gras is all about getting oneself recognized, not recognizing others.
Appropriation isn't an honor
Here are some valid choices for the Mardi Gras Indians:
1) If you're honoring real Indians, dress like real Indians. For instance, if you're honoring all Indians, dress like a variety of real-world Indians. Don't dress only in stereotypical Plains clothes.
Similarly, if you're honoring Louisiana Indians, don't dress like Las Vegas showgirls. Dress like Louisiana Indians. Duh.
2) If you're dressing like fake Indians, don't claim you're honoring real Indians. This applies to most mascot lovers, Mardi Gras krewes, and other Indian wannabes.
We don't honor George Washington by dressing up as King George III. Or Abraham Lincoln by dressing up as John Wilkes Booth. Dressing up as the wrong Indians is just as stupid as dressing up as the wrong Europeans.
3) If you can't dress like the Indians you're supposedly honoring, don't bother trying. You're just going to trivialize or bastardize the people you claim to admire.
Try honoring Louisiana's Indians with awards or artwork, not phony names and costumes. Try giving to them, not taking from them. (Mis)appropriating someone's culture and history isn't an honor.
For more on the subject, see Exploitation Upsets Mardi Gras Exploiters and Debating the Hokey Mayokis.
Below: A scene from Treme.