Having grown up in a small town in Louisiana, away from New Orleans, our Mardi Gras celebrations didn’t incorporate all the nuances of typical French Quarter flair, Bourbon Street woes, or institutions like “Mardi Gras Indians,” yep, “Indians.” An umbrella classification identifying 38 organizations of black entertainers, that coin themselves as “tribes.” It turns out that the New Orleans’ tradition is rooted in the ever-present theme of slavery and indigenous removal.
Hundreds of African slaves that were freed after the Civil War, ultimately joined the “Buffalo Soldiers,” U.S. Cavalry Regiments of the United States Army comprised of African Americans (specifically 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiment). You may have heard the term “Buffalo Soldier,” used in a song made popular in the late 20th Century by Bob Marley. Sadly, these regiments had a significant hand in the mass killing, forced removal and relocation of the Plains tribes during the Indian Removal Act. Upon return to New Orleans, many former Buffalo Soldiers joined wild west shows. In 1885, it is recorded that about sixty Plains Tribesman marched during Mardi Gras in full regalia. Inspired by this, the black soldiers that participated in wild west shows, most notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, formulated their own entertainment troupes, eventually evolving into today’s “Mardi Gras Indians.”
Their exaggerated stereotypical dress, layered war paint, and beaded adornments of removal act scenes, are blatant evidence of, for lack of a better terms, misappropriation #OnFleek. A quick YouTube search and dozens of videos celebrating their “culture” are easily accessible, yet not one video calling them out for exploiting Indigenous traditions. Not one video testimonial of their unfortunate but traceable roots to the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.
As a member of a tribe that celebrates Louisiana whole-heartedly, so much so that we incorporated the state into our name, the “Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana,” it is a hard pill to swallow when Louisiana’s most revered celebration of Mardi Gras is marred by such an ignorant procession of ill-natured Native Appropriation, based on foundations of Indigenous removal executed by former slaves. I’m not writing this as an exercise to point fingers at anyone, but rather, as an effort to wave my finger in disapproval of a society that allows this ignorance to be perpetuated. I like to think that once made aware of the offense, those that perpetuate it would rather participate in a dialogue to correct it. Add this one to the list Native America, lets end it.
“Today is a good day to die…” –Crazy Horse
Mardi Gras Indians
1885 – 2016
Santiago X (Lawrence Santiago, M.Arch) is an Indigenous Artist, Architect, Singer/Songwriter, and Indigenous Youth Development Specialist. He is an enrolled member the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana (Koasati) and Chamorro (Hachamaori) People of Guam U.S.A. and currently resides in Chicago, IL. Follow on Instagram @SANTIAGO___X