April 12, 2010

Indians at the bottom in New Orleans

Some people have argued that because Indians and blacks have a shared history at the bottom of New Orleans society, it's okay for them to appropriate each other's culture. Neither group was in a position to lord it over the other, so this appropriation is a respectful kind of homage.

For some reason this appropriation goes only one way: blacks imitate Indians but Indians don't imitate blacks. I suspect that's because blacks and Indians weren't truly equal in this environment. Blacks had a superior social position, so their "homage" was no homage. It was more of the usual stereotyping: "As Indians we can pretend to be wild and free, even though we're staid members of civilized society."

A posting on the Choctaw shows how Indians were marginalized even in the multicultural gumbo of Louisiana. I believe the first (indented) comes from Joey Dillard, a "recognized authority on black English." "Red Bones" is a pejorative term for Indians who migrated from the Carolinas and Georgia.Both Indians and Red Bones long have been marginal to the plantation areas of Louisiana. The Indian settlements were in the swamps, pine woods, and marshes, and their closest non-Indian neighbors most often were white yeoman farmers, Acadians, and Scotch-Irish, who owned no slaves. If Indians lived near a plantation, the owner became their patron, offering them credit and protection from exploitation, at least by others. In exchange, they were required to hunt, entertain guests with ball games and dances, make baskets, tan hides, and perform other services that might, on occasion, include the recovery of runaway slaves."Half savages and half civilized"

The posting continues:Dominique Rouquette, a friend of the Louisiana Choctaw, has left a lively description of the situations in 1850.

The Choctaw obstinately refuse to abandon the different parishes of Louisiana, where they are grouped in small family tribes, and live in rough huts in the vicinity of plantations, and hunt for the planters, who trade for the games they kill all they need: powder, lead, corn, woolen covers, etc. Their huts are generally [surrounded] by a fence. In this enclosure their families plant corn, pumpkins and potatoes, and raise chickens.
Rosa Jackson Pierite, a Choctaw-Biloxi from Indian Creek, has described how, in the 1920s, her mother and sisters put their baskets in a sheet, bundled it over a pole, and walked twelve miles from their homes near Indian Creek to Alexandria: "We spread them on street corners and sold them to passers-by." Rouquette has described a similar scene from nineteenth-century New Orleans.

Nothing is more interesting to the tourists than to see them [the Choctaw] wandering along the streets of La Reine du Sud (the Queen of the South), La Cite du Croissant (Crescent City) with their pauvres pacotilles (small, cheap wares), in their picturesque costumes, half savages and half civilized, followed by a number of children of all ages, half naked, and carrying on their backs a papoose snugly wrapped in the blanket, with which they envelope themselves, like a squirrel in moss.

Sometimes they squat in a circle, at the big market place, on the banks of the old river, patiently waiting with downcast eyes, for the chalandes [customers] who buy what they offer, more for the sake of charity than from necessity.

Artists such as basket makers were considered to be peddling, a low-status occupation in the eyes of non-Indians. Hunters were considered unreliable, almost objects of ridicule. Social contacts with non-Indians were largely restricted to practically momentary encounters, so the ball games, dances, and the sacred rituals of religion became matters of curiosity and sources of entertainment for white planters' families and friends.

(A Choctaw Belle, 1850, painted by P. Romer.)

Sounds to me like Indians were considered the dregs of society, equivalent to black slaves. They were considered half-savage, with large broods of children, exotic and colorful. They lives in rough huts in the woods and swamps beyond the plantations and didn't interact much with others except to sell their goods.

"Free people of color"

In contrast, here's how the free blacks and mixed-race Creoles lived:

Louisiana Creole peopleAs a group, the mixed-race Créoles rapidly began to acquire education, skills (many in New Orleans worked as craftsmen and artisans), businesses and property. They were overwhelmingly Catholic, spoke Colonial French (although some also spoke Louisiana Creole French), and kept up many French social customs, modified by other parts of their ancestry and Louisiana culture. With enough numbers, the free people of color also married among themselves to maintain their class and social culture. The French-speaking mixed-race or mulatto population came to be called Black Créoles and Créoles of color. "New Orleans persons of color were far wealthier, more secure, and more established than blacks elsewhere in Louisiana."And:Under the French and Spanish, Louisiana was a three-tiered society, similar to that of Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, St.Lucia, Mexico, and other Latin colonies. This three-tiered society allowed for the emergence of a wealthy and educated group of mixed-race Créoles. Their identity as free people of color, or Gens de couleur libres or personnes de couleur libre was one they had worked diligently towards and guarded with an iron fist. By law they enjoyed most of the same rights and privileges as whites. They could and often did challenge the law in court of law and won cases against whites (Hirsch; Brasseaux; Mills; Kein etc.). There were some free blacks, but in Louisiana most free people of color were of mixed race, descended initially from the children of planters and wealthier merchants. They acquired education, property and power within the colony, and later, state.

(Creole woman of color with maid, from a watercolor series by Édouard Marquis, New Orleans, 1867.)

So blacks and Indians apparently weren't equivalent in New Orleans. Blacks enjoyed more status and power, especially if they had mixed blood.

Given this, I can imagine the origin of the Mardi Gras Indians. Just like white college students, Boy Scouts, and Y-Indian Guides, blacks and Creoles started "playing Indian" to assert their identity. "We're a clan, we're tribal, we're connected to this place and its inhabitants. We're stronger, more unified, more authentic than you."

I conclude the Mardi Gras Indians are a form of exploitation, just as I thought. They're pretending to be Indians for the same reason everyone pretends to be Indians: "It feels good to be a wild savage."

For more on the Mardi Gras Indians, see Mardi Gras Indians in Treme and Mardi Gras Indian Stereotypes. For more on the subject in general, see Indian Wannabes and The Political Uses of Stereotyping.


John said...

You're reaching, Rob. Reading the articles you posted, what it actually states is that the vast majority of "free people of color" weren't blacks, but rather were mixed race, in most cases only getting their freedom because one of the parents was the wealtthy owner of a slave plantation. And you gloss over the fact that, though Indians were being exploited, many blacks were outright slaves.

If the history books are right, it wasn't the wealthy mixed race "people of color" who originated the phenomenom of the Mardi Gras Indians, but rather the slaves or freed slaves who were banned from taking part in the official Mardi Gras celebrations. In fact, I've read reports that indicated that, rather than being about showmanship, these blacks originally formed "tribes" of their own for a sense of community and belonging, getting into fights with other tribes in a manner akin to what you hear about gang fights today. The showmanship, the flashy costumes and participation in Mardi Gras came later as a less violent alternative.

We're in agreement that this is an outdated, crude depiction of race. But where we differ comes to the same flaw that pops up in a lot of your arguments. Where you can't handle complexity or more complex cultural factors influencing possible acts of racial stereotyping. You always have to simplify it to "these are bad, nasty people who are deliberately trying to lord it over Indians to prove their own superiority, because they secretly hate Indians." It's selling short the context and wider implications of the issue in favor of creating a convenient strawman to rail against.

From what I've heard, the origins of the Mardi Gras Indian stem from blacks seeking protection from Indian communities in New Orleans, and later drawing from them a sense of identity. There was some inter-marriage, and yes, some cultural appropriation. It's something of a bastard culture that has formed, with African cultural identity stripped away by slavery, then replaced by elements of Indian culture and later Afro-Caribbean culture as those immigrants arrived. It's a hodge-podge of different cultures, not all of it accurate or even tasteful, but it's who they are. I believe this is something that passes down families, from father to son (or more recently mother to daughter), rather than being some vast money-spinning enterprise built on the backs of mercenary exploitation of Natives.

Really looking into the complexities of this culture - the issues that formed it, the role it plays in giving these people a sense of identity, the implications of taking it away, whether it should be taken away - could make for an interesting piece. Simply settling for a pat "blacks hate Indians as much as whites hate Indians" conclusion is a disappointment.

John said...

I was sure I'd read about the "father-son" thing, but looking back I can't find any note of it anywhere. So if that proves to be inaccurate, my apologies.



There is no interesting “piece” to be made about whether “blacks should take away from the Indian culture for Mardi Gras,” or not!

My take on this issue is that African culture is culturally rich and has its own languages and dances. Why celebrate and perpetuate an ancient people’s culture simply because you are ignorant and lacking knowledge of your own roots? This is where the whiteman and African Americans hold a common bond of sports mascots; racial stereotyping and ignorance about indigenous cultures that predate these dominant races.

I was stationed overseas and my first incident with racism came from a black sergeant who called me a whiteboy, when I cursed him in my native tongue, he said, "what?" and I replied, "who's the whiteboy now?"

There is a lot of Indian blood in all races, but what makes for an indigenous culture is the languages, songs, dances, foods, etc., and when you dress or dance as a means to celebrate another culture, how is this different than when whites “celebrated” blacks in the minstrel shows wearing blackfaces or how southerners wish to regard the Confederate Flag as a means of identity or celebrate it? Native Americans could use the same argument about the stars and stripes (old glory), but American Indians have served loyally and patriotically in every American war from colonial times to the war today in Afghanistan and still manage to maintain a cultural identity predating “manifest destiny”.

Why do African Americans cry foul when they themselves are their greatest enemy? There is so much crime and domestic abuse in the black community today that it has seeped into their music and culture itself and most African Americans seem to be “comfortable” or at the least “apathetic” in calling their females and everyone “b#tches and hoes” to the extent, it has replaced the English language, so they also feel the need to wear headdresses and feathers because “it is their culture in Louisiana?” Please explain?

This can only explain the fact that like many Americans, Indians included, African Americans are also nationalist and wish only to identify themselves as purely “American”. Nothing wrong with this except as a full blooded Apache, I do not celebrate any other culture except what I was born out of respect, something I don't think most non-Indians understand because I believe they think Natives share the same history, but they are wrong!

I do not believe these Mardi Gras “Indians” are being intentionally racists or bigoted, but they do contribute to the mascots and negative imagery so many of us indigenous people try to fight to preserve while keeping alive what little is left of our culture and sovereign being.
African Americans now have a President in the White House and have pushed some southern states to exclude the Confederate Flags from waving through lobbying and legislation, how does this place African Americans and American Indians on a historically equal level of struggle when you can’t even see a full blooded Indian in a television commercial and when you see full blooded Indians in major Hollywood film studios, they are almost never given top billing with non-native actors/actresses. Look at the DVD release of “Flags of Our Fathers”. Although Ira Hayes, a Pima from Arizona, helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima, the actor that portrayed him, Adam Beach, is not given full credit or recognition even though he poured his heart out during the whole movie, but that’s another editorial, right?


EG said...

once again written by someone who is neither black or Indian and never lived in New Orleans...

m. said...

Thank you so much, BLACKFACE TRIBE. Native people, as a race, are always considered a "gray area" when it comes to co-opting, claiming (even when not claimed back) and performing an 'identity'. We're the last people it's okay to either openly hate or remain ignorant towards (right along with Hawaiians - I mean kanaka 'oiwi, not settlers in Hawai'i). Cultural MISappropriation is something that both white and black people have both been engaging in for years, both will adamantly defend it until the bitter end...and how DARE any real Indians speak up about their blatanly offensive attitudes towards an entire people with unique and varied cultures/nations?? The overall feeling seems to be that Indians ought to just shut up, sit down and let the "general" (i.e. white, black, Asian...anything but Native!) population continue on with their obnoxious parade...the one that's lasted for hundreds of years.

I am glad you came along to comment before me, you nailed everything on the head so I wouldn't have to be hit by a wave of nausea while trying to. It's examples like this which remind me that non-Native people - white or not - all share one thing in common: most don't seem to be getting any less disrespectful, ignorant or racist (whether they are 'trying' to or not doesn't matter, once you're an adult you need to grow up and become accountable for the stupid things you say/think/do). They don't know what it is like to not be able to turn on the T.V. and see ONE person who looks like you...we don't have that, and it's just one of many things that have actually driven me to tears in the past when I've sat down with non-Native friends who've asked me to explain "why you guys are so ANGRY all the time". They don't know what it is like to be racialized, yet have to deal with statements of disbelief or asinine comments when you correct those who call you 'Chinese', 'Hispanic', 'some type of an Asian mix'. ("But...but...you're not dark enough!!!", "What's Navajo? Ho-WHAT???", "No, you're not. What are you doing in the city? Okay, let me see your card", are some treasured exmaples.) They don't know what it's like to be IN YOUR OWN HOMELAND, yet marginalized to the point where you and others are not only invisible and lack any representation in the media, but basically considered non-existant.

As selfish as it may seem to others who haven't experienced it, there are times Asians or blacks have told me their problems and I've wished to tell them just how privileged they are that *that* what they consider 'a hurdle'. I don't, but it just goes to show how well non-Native people have it off. (And I'm not the only one who thinks that way! I've heard it from others!)

It kills me if I think about it. One of the more difficult, frustrating, maddening parts of being Native, you know? The constant heartbreak and feelings of alienation. (Not even touching upon the problems specific to our tribes!)

m. said...

'and still manage to maintain a cultural identity predating “manifest destiny”.'

'...something I don't think most non-Indians understand because I believe they think Natives share the same history...'

I'd just like to point out that, interestingly enough and despite our many differences, all the non-Native people I've known who've been the most sympathetic when it comes to this specific form of stereotyping have been East Asian (more specifically, people I know whose parents came directly from or were born in Korea or China, rather than Asians who are 3rd or 4th generation and therefore come from a long line of people who're assimilated or at-home and accepted amongst white people and the larger/mainstream U.S. society). It seems to me that they are taught from birth who they are, and grow into adulthood knowing themselves, much like Native people (something wannabes can never understand). They've shown me that they know what it is like for typical North Americans to generalize your race with no regards to ethnicity through similar stories we've shared. No matter how urbanized we are, despite the fact that we speak English fluently, how strong our grasp is on the written English word...we don't know how to be 'Americans' or "Asian"/"Native American", period. The only people who relate to those as identities seem to be the most assimilated, as they're just labels the federal gov't made up. And, like the commentor 'BLACKFACE TRIBE', I don't know how to be a member of a brown, buck-skinned, feathered monolith like the Mardi Gras "Indians'" view us - I only know how to be Hopi and Dine'. So they ought to be ashamed and embarrassed that their mode of thought is so informed by the mainstream, that this is their idea of all Indians.

Oh, and John - it seems to be you who lacks complexity in their argument. I don't believe anyone has said that, "blacks outright hate Indians" or "blacks hate Indians as much as whites do." You know what, though? Many black people do happen to mimic most white people in both action and thought in their attitudes towards/views of Indians, so if you don't think that they are just as ignorant and are capable of being racist towards Indians (unless your definition of 'racism' is just "hatred for another race" - talk about lack of complexity)...please. Black people are, more or less, assimilated into "typical American society" and their culture has become the mainstream, like whites. If you think they are immune to thinking, saying or doing things that are racist against the Indigenous population...think again.

Oh, and if you want to play the oppression olympics, be my guest. Want to talk about the Buffalo Soldiers? Want to talk about the fact that Euro colonizers, horrible as it was that they viewed black people as a fraction of a person, didn't even view Indians as a fraction of one but subhuman - animals? Black people were considered "protectors of the white man" from us dangerous, pagan heathens. We weren't easily Christianized like black people, either. In both North America (including Canada and Mexico), Central and South, we have been more than exploited. We have been considered the lowest of the low, and nothing's changed. Maybe you shouldn't play that game, though, since you seem to be operating from what you've only read in U.S. high school history books.