April 11, 2010

Mardi Gras Indians in Treme

A new HBO series about New Orleans features the Mardi Gras Indians:

In 'Treme', Race and Class Loom Large

By Latoya PetersonEach character appears to serve a different purpose outside of the story, with many vocalizing contemporary issues in New Orleans. For example, Albert Lambreaux is fascinating for a variety of reasons, one being his representation of different life stages. While he is currently a respected member of the community and a pillar of tradition, the events in the second episode hint at a less virtuous path to his current position. Lambreaux is also the neighborhood's resident "chief"--a title conferred due to his involvement with the Mardi Gras Indians. As Lambreaux struggles to pull together the members of his "tribe" before Mardi Gras and Super Sunday (St. Joseph's day), outsiders are treated to an interesting historical footnote: the exact origins of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition are not known, but most inception stories trace the practice to the intermingling of black and Indigenous peoples during the slavery era and the growth of the tradition as an homage to shared culture and solidarity.

Adrienne Keene, of the Native Appropriations blog, discusses the aspects of both appropriation and respect that inform the longstanding tradition:

Inherent in the concept of cultural appropriation is the notion of power. The group in power takes cultural aspects of a subordinate community out of context and uses them how they see fit. These Mardi Gras Indians are African American, and arguably at the lowest economic strata of society (the NYTimes article talks about copyrighting as a means to recoup money for these performers). They are by no means in a position of power over Native communities in Louisiana or elsewhere. The Mardi Gras Indian culture does not appear to come out of a desire to "play Indian," and in many ways, it has moved outside of the realm of cultural appropriation into a distinct culture and community of it's own. But above all, it seems the history comes not out of a relationship of power, but out of a shared position of marginality and discrimination.
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.
Comment: I say the Mardi Gras krewes are playing Indian. Their reasons may be a little deeper than most, but they're still adopting stereotypical names and costumes that have nothing to do with their Southern Indian heritage.

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:
Even though you helped us, we ended up ahead of you. We have more power and status and we're glad of it. Because we can dress up as you, we will dress up as you. Like any Westerners who dress up in tribal costumes or fashions, our message is: "We won. We're better than you. We can pretend to be savages because we're civilized."
Where are the real Indians?

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.


Anonymous said...

Rob asked--"where is the sharing of marginalized culures in Mardi Gras"?

You have a point there. There is none. But you also miss the actual point that Natives are not Black, nor do we want to be Black and celebrate slavery of the south. As a matter of a possible fact, I don't think anyone wants to be Black. Not in that regard, which is probably why there is no 'sharing' of cultures in Mardi Gras.

"Even though you helped us. We ended up ahead of you."

How did they ended up ahead of us? Here's some notions of my onw. Blacks are still to this point, at the bottom of the barrel in New Orleans status quo. Hurricane Katrina has pointed this out. We saw Blacks were the majority left behind and largely ignored by rescue efforts and hence treated as petty criminals. Black communities were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Blacks still make up highest murder rate (victims/perpetrators) in New Orleans than any other ethnic group. I don't see how Blacks of LA came ahead of Natives in LA. So that's another misconception by Rob's opinion. I will only assume the reason why these Black 'Indians' with their dog & pony shows, are dressing up as stereotypes is merely done for self-profit and nothing more.


Anonymous said...

On a 2nd note, it seems that Rob, in some of his comments are sometimes meant as nothing more than sensationalism, a bit of exaggeration, possibility to generate some hype. Its not logical to juxtapose Blacks with Natives. Both ethnic groups are very unique and different from one another with different purposes. In the Black man's world, they want to seek equality to that of their former masters--Whites. Natives on the other hand, want independennce and sovereinty. There is not much 'shared' similarities between the two ethnic groups, in spite of sharing some history in the U.S.


Blackface Tribe said...

There was an episode on Saturday Night Live during 1988, I believe, where Robbie Robertson, a Mohawk and former member of The Band, used these same Mardi Gras “Indians” in the backdrop on stage during a performance. I was uncomfortable seeing African Americans wearing headdresses and regalia that were more than fake and exaggerated feathers and beads. This reminded me of the sports mascots that I see prancing around football arenas and basketball courts to some chant or drum beat that signifies a continuation of proclaiming, “The Indians are dead and we must preserve their culture while entertaining ourselves”.

How is this different than wearing a “black face” as Al Jolson did; portraying a Chinese the way Tony Randall did in “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao”; or Monty Python singing, “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” during the crucifixion scene in “Life Of Brian”?

African Americans, Asians and Anglo Christians are quick to point out the obscenities of mimicking their race or culture when it is at their expense, but they cannot understand the insult in regards to indigenous cultures with mascots and entertainment. If African Americans wish to continue portraying Indians in Mardi Gras or in sports, I would like to see them dance to the following song, written by a man named Thomas D. Rice:

First on de heel tap, den on the toe
Every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow.
I wheel about and turn about an do just so,
And every time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow

This song is of historical significance in that it can educate African Americans on just how insulting entertainment can be, what would Outkast think?

There are two schools of African Americans in this country; first are the majority of Americanized and nationalized African Americans that completely disown their African roots in exchange for “capitalist acculturated” identity that seek an “even” playing field with whites adopting and protesting any and all rights not granted them or, there is the African American that identifies and struggles to regain any African culture through history and wanting to reconnect with their aboriginal roots.

Unfortunately, one cannot find the latter of the two and most Native Americans find themselves dealing with ignorance from both the white and black races. Where African Americans feel discriminated against, they turn around and inflict their own prejudices against Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. They are in fact, as Chief Dan George said in “Little Big Man”, “the Black Whiteman and it was said that at one time that the Black Whiteman was a human being.” Reminds me of a book called, "How The Irish Became White," by Noel Ignatiev

We now have a half African American as a President and legislation has been passed to stop southern states from waving the Confederate Flag. How does this place the American Indians and African Americans as equal in struggle when you can’t even see an American Indian in a TV commercial?


Rob said...

The Indians who once lived in New Orleans are mostly gone, Geno. Disease and warfare killed most of them and Euro-Americans forced the rest out. I'd say that's worse than being poor but alive, the state of the city's blacks today.

Moreover, Hurricane Katrina hurt Indians as much as it hurt blacks. Here's the story on that:


Indian Tribes and Hurricane Katrina: Overlooked by the Federal Government, Relief Organizations and the Corporate Media

An estimated 4,500 American Indians living along the southeast Louisiana coast lost everything to Hurricane Katrina according to state officials and tribal leaders. Hurricane Rita, which hit four weeks after Katrina, dealt another blow to the tribes. Officials estimate that 5,000-6,000 American Indians lost their homes or possessions in that storm. The Louisiana tribes most affected by the back-to-back hurricanes are the United Houma Nation, the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Indian Band of Biloxi-Chitimasha, the Grand Caillou-Dulac Band and the Biloxi-Chitimasha Confederation of Muskogees.

Rob said...

I wasn't suggesting that Louisiana's Indians should "celebrate slavery." Instead, they could celebrate the courageous runaways who risked everything to be free.

In addition, they could celebrate the free blacks and Creoles who filled New Orleans society and made it a multicultural haven. These people, not slaves, were responsible for the Mardi Gras tradition, so why not honor them?

A brief history of the Mardi Gras may help:


During the late 1700s, pre-Lenten masked balls and festivals were common in New Orleans while it was under French rule. However when New Orleans came under Spanish rule the custom was banned. In 1803 New Orleans came under the U.S. flag. The prohibition against masked festivals continued until 1823 when the Creole populace convinced the governor to permit masked balls. In 1827 street masking was again legalized.

During the early 1800s public celebrations of Mardi Gras centered around maskers on foot, in carriages and on horseback. The first documented parade occurred in 1837.

Rob said...

For more on the social status of blacks and Indians, see Indians at the Bottom in New Orleans.