The Legendary Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans


One of the most unique aspects of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the existence of the Mardi Gras Indians.  From the site: “Mardi Gras is full of secrets, and the Mardi Gras Indians are as much a part of that secrecy as any other carnival organization. Their parade dates, times and routes are never published in advance, although they do tend to gather in the same areas every year. The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised, in large part, of the African-American communities of New Orleans's inner city. While these Indians have paraded for well over a century, their parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition.  


The origins of the black Indians of New Orleans are contested. Many Mardi Gras tribal members point to black-Indian relationships in the French, Spanish and later American colonial periods wherein Native Americans assisted in the escape of slaves and establishment of maroon communities on the margins of New Orleans and nearby plantations. Some Mardi Gras Indians assert Native American ancestry. Others insist on the primacy of West African and Afro-Caribbean sources in dance, song style, rhythms and over all comportment. The presence of local Native American tribes, mingling with enslaved, free people of color and French and Spanish locals attending dances and festivals during the 18th and 19th century in Congo Square near today’s French Quarter is also described as a source of today’s black Mardi Gras Indians. With their fanciful names and stylized costumes, the arrival of Wild West shows in the city in the 1880s is also given credit as a source of visual representation and rhetorical style.


Membership in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe is voluntary and based on social networking rather than birthright. Tribes are organized with very specific roles for each member, following a system begun by early tribes such as the Creole Wild West and Yellow Pocahontas. The big chief is the tribal leader, often assisted by second chiefs and queens. The spy boy marches several blocks in front of the chiefs and queens, seeking out other tribes. He relays directions to the flag boy, who notifies the chief by waving a flag or stick. When tribes meet, the wild man clears a path among the onlookers so the chiefs can face off. Changes in the tribe membership often lead to changes in these positions, but the hierarchy of the tribal organization—akin to a military unit—is strictly maintained. Matters of any significance fall under the authority of the chief. 

Fraternity within the tribe and competitiveness with other tribes characterize Mardi Gras Indian culture. The Indian embodies a particularly masculine representation of fierceness that has historically relegated women to supporting roles; there are few queens, and men virtually always fill the other ranks. In this way, the big chief and other tribe members correspond both to the figure of the Native American who “won’t bow, won’t kneel” in the face of adversity, as well as the protagonists of African-American songs and stories of “big men” such as John Henry and bad men such as Stagger Lee.


The language of the Mardi Gras Indians is the most elusive and mysterious aspect of the culture. Made up of English and French as well as invented words, the speaking and singing of the Indians is a form of verbal art that resists precise translation but is widely understood by Indians. In many Indian songs, hoo na nae is synonymous with the phrase let’s go get ‘em,”while the meaning of the frequently heard refrain tuway pockyway is entirely dependent on the context. 


The songs of the Mardi Gras Indians are the most popular and accessible aspect of the culture. At Indian gatherings, songs are arranged in call-and-response fashion, with the chief improvising a solo vocal and the tribe responding with a repeated chant: shallow water oh mama! big chief got a golden crown! A second line (an informal parade) of percussionists accompanies the chants with tambourines, cowbells, and found objects such as beer bottles. Popular chants have also become the basis for rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and hip-hop recordings, including James Sugarboy Crawford’s 1954 rhythm and blues recording of Jock-A-Mo. The music and spectacle of the Indians has also spawned tribute songs, such as Earl King’s Big Chief, popularized by pianist Professor Longhair in a 1964 recording." (


Big Chief - Professor Longhair



Street Parade - Earl King

The most popular song associated with the black Indians of New Orleans is Big Chief. Written by the late New Orleans guitarist-composer Earl King, also the originator of the Mardi Gras anthem Street Parade, the song was first recorded in 1964 for Watch Records. The session included Mac Rebennack, who later became known as Dr. John, on guitar and Professor Longhair on piano. King whistles and handles the vocals on “Big Chief Part 2″ (“Me big chief me got ’em tribe/got my spy boy by my side”), considered to be the session’s definitive version.



Historical records suggest that blacks were dressing up as Indians to celebrate Mardi Gras as early as 1746. Intermingling of the two races soon led to a boom in mulatto babies. Some of these Creoles even used their costumes to sneak into the secret society Mardi Gras balls. This development ultimately prompted the Spanish government that ran New Orleans at the time to ban them from wearing masks.  So instead they stuck to the black neighborhoods around Congo Square. That is, until the 1811 slave revolt led to a complete ban on all gatherings by people of color, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free men. In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, hundreds of former slaves joined the U.S. Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. These were established by the United States Congress as the first all-black regiments to serve during times of peace. Approximately 50 to 60 Plains Indians marched on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras in 1885, all of them wearing traditional costumes. Some historians suggest that the first Mardi Gras Indian gang– “Creole Wild West”– was formed later that year, but CWW members suggest their origins date back to the early 1800s.

Regardless, we know that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition remained largely underground for decades, dividing geographically into loosely organized gangs (now known as tribes). They would secretly gather to sing and chant in the ancient tribal tradition. They worked all year long to create colorful suits bedecked with intricate hand beading, false gems and decorative feathers. They would also craft matching accessories such as staffs, shields, and tribal flags.  

On Mardi Gras day, the police were often kept busy protecting the tourist-focused French Quarter, so the Mardi Gras Indians would take to the streets of their neighborhoods to strut their stuff and honor the Indians who had helped them obtain their freedom. When they met with a rival tribe, some reports suggest that it often led to violence, with stabbings and shootings relatively common. But other Mardi Gras Indian historians (including Cherice Harrison-Nelson, founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame) argue that these reports of violence were greatly exaggerated.  





The Mardi Gras Indians first entered American pop culture consciousness in 1965. That’s when New Orleans girl group The Dixie Cups had a hit with Iko Iko (a cover of 1953’s Jock-A-Mo, by Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters). The lyrics described a quintessential collision between two tribes, who exchange taunting chants: My flag boy and your flag boy were sittin’ by the fire. My flag boy told your flag boy, ‘I’m gonna set your flag on fire.  

But powerful Big Chiefs such as including Bo Dollis (Wild Magnolias), Donald Harrison Sr. (Guardians of the Flame), and Tootie Montana (Yellow Pocahontas) came together in the ’70s and put an end to the violence. Together, they moved this iconic African-American tradition into the New Orleans mainstream. 

Few in the ghetto felt they could ever participate in the typical New Orleans parade. Historically, slavery and racism were at the root of this cultural separation. The black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras. Their krewes are named for imaginary Indian tribes according to the streets of their ward or gang. The Mardi Gras Indians named themselves after native Indians to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom. They have never forgotten this support. In the past, Mardi Gras was a violent day for many Mardi Gras Indians. It was a day often used to settle scores. The police were often unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding Mardi Gras events in the city, when the streets were crowded and everyone was masked. This kept many families away from the parade, and created much worry and concern for a mothers whose children wanted to join the Indians. 


Should we call them Mardi Gras Indians, or should we be calling them  something else? | Mardi Gras |

Today, when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass one another, you will see a living theater of art and culture. Each tribe's style and dress is on display in a friendly but competitive manner. They compare one another's art and craftsmanship. The Big Chiefs of two different tribes start with a song/chant, ceremonial dance, and threatening challenge to Humba. The Big Chief's demand that the other Chief bows and pays respect. The retort is a whoop and equally impressive song and war dance with the reply, Me no Humba, YOU The good news is Mardi Gras day is no longer a day to settle scores among the Mardi Gras Indians. Now that the tradition and practice for the Indians to compare their tribal song, dance and dress with other tribes as they meet that day, violence is a thing of the past. The Mardi Gras Indian has invested thousands of hours and dollars in the creation of his suit, and will not run the risk of ruining it in a fight. This tradition, rich with folk art and history, is now appreciated by museums and historical societies around the world. It is a remarkable and welcome change from the past.











From the Folklife in Louisiana site: "The honor of being an Indian Chief carries with it many responsibilities. Time and money must be spent throughout the entire year creating and painstakingly sewing together the costumes. Naturally, the Chief must have the most beautiful and most elaborate outfit in his group. He is in competition with other tribes to out-dress their Chiefs. He must also command the respect of his tribesmen, teaching them to follow his commands, so that their dancing and singing is as sharp as it can be. He must motivate them to participate in long practice sessions and help them to design their own costumes. Additionally, the Chief represents his community at various functions throughout the year...The art of sewing Indian costumes, as well as accompanying cultural tradition was passed on to Charles by his uncle, who undoubtedly devoted many painstaking hours towards teaching the intricate and detailed craft. This art is complicated and involves special tools and special knowledge which can only be taught by someone who has been involved in the tradition for many years. Pride is an important aspect of the Mardi Gras Indian culture--pride in a job well done, in one's own creation, and in one's own heritage. Charles has expressed his joy in being able to pass on this information "so that the younger generation will understand and be proud of their history. Even though they are poor in other ways, they can be rich in pride for being able to create something so wonderful as a Mardi Gras Indian costume, which embodies art, culture, and history." 


Mardi Gras Indians History and Tradition | Mardi Gras New Orleans

With names like Creole Wild West, Yellow Pocahontas and Wild Magnolias, the Indian men and families work for months to sew elaborately-colored bead and feather suits that are shared traditions of creativity drawn from images of Plains Indians hunting, making war, riding horses or other pursuits. Many of those who “mask Indian” also design and sew highly individual works that may come to them in dreams. In spite of the term, very few Mardi Gras Indians actually wear masks, though many paint their faces and use long hair, braided wigs.  

Each tribe is divided into a hierarchy with a Big Chief at the top, and various supporting second chiefs, queens, and princesses. Special roles are taken by a spyboy who keeps a lookout for other gangs of Indians and a wildman who may clear a path in the crowded street between tribes so that the chiefs may meet to face-off in ritual dances and chants that demonstrate power and demand respect. Historically this could lead to violence, but in recent decades, under the leadership of the late chief Allison ‘Tootie’ Montana, the chiefs and tribal members have moved toward competing with their costumes, song and dance to be the prettiest.



Each chief is expected to be a good singer capable of improvising songs over a dense rhythm section of bass drums, tambourines and various bottles, sticks and bells. The words may comment on his prowess and the day’s activities with the full tribe and followers in backing chorus. One song, “Sew, Sew, Sew,” describes the work of the men preparing costumes; another, “My Big Chief Got a Golden Crown,” offers praise to the leader; “Indian Red” is a hymn-like song of prayer to the Native spirits assembled in a clubhouse or home at the start of an Indian practice or parade. Words of some songs and street commands like “J’a q’ mo fille na-nay” or “Tu way pas qui-way” show of mix of French Creole and secret group language that defies direct translation



The Mardi Gras Indians who walk and dance in the streets of New Orleans have often received less attention than Zulu, the famed African American parody-filled float parade, or elite white Uptown krewes like Rex and Proteus with their originally mule drawn wagons of elaborate papier-maché theme floats. However, the black Indians have also come to signify African roots and communal power in a city where class disparities based on race have been profound. Famed Indian chiefs like Monk Boudreaux, Bo Dollis and the late Donald Harrison Sr. became better known in annual New Orleans Jazz Festival appearances, sound recordings and international touring. 


A Dazzling Mardi Gras Spectacle – Garden & Gun

In the immediate post-Katrina flood period (2005), Mardi Gras Indians famously returned early to their ritual and festival ways and were viewed as emblematic of the will of black New Orleanians to return to and rebuild their distressed city in articles from the local Times-Picayune newspaper to the New York Times. At today’s Carnival in New Orleans the Mardi Gras Indians continue their pomp and pride-filled march through the 21st Century.


Big Chief Monk Boudreaux


Mardi Gras is full of secrets, and the Mardi Gras Indians are as much a part of that secrecy as any other carnival organization. Their parade dates, times and routes are never published in advance, although they do tend to gather in the same areas every year. The Mardi Gras Indians are comprised, in large part, of the African-American communities of New Orleans's inner city. While these Indians have paraded for well over a century, their parade is perhaps the least recognized Mardi Gras tradition.


Isaac Edwards: 93 year old Mardi Gras Indian


Handa Wanda - Bo Dollis & The Wild Magnolias

In 1971, Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias were the first Indians to make a commercial recording of their own music, using a group of funk musicians to arrange Dollis’s Handa Wanda. Under the musical direction of pianist, composer, and arranger Wilson Turbinton (Willie Tee), the Wild Magnolias recorded two LPs in the early 1970s and toured the United States and France.


The Wild Tchoupitoulas album

Indian funk was given a sizable boost in 1976 when the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe recorded an album, titled Wild Tchoupitoulas, with arrangements by the city’s most acclaimed funk group, The Meters. On the record and in performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, lead vocalist Joseph Landry (Chief Jolly) was accompanied by his nephews, the Neville Brothers. Like Willie Tee, the Nevilles—Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril Neville—grew up listening to the Indians on Mardi Gras Day.


New Suit - Wild Magnolias

Music composed for these recordings, such as the Magnolias’ New Suit in 1975 and the Wild Tchoupitoulas’ Meet De Boys on the Battlefront, released the next year, now stand alongside Big Chief and Iko, Iko as the most prominent and durable signs of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. 

Musical recordings and staged performances brought extraordinary recognition to what had been a relatively obscure and even secretive community practice, attracting a much larger public to the tradition of masking and chanting. The increased attendance at Indian parades on Mardi Gras Day and especially the proliferation of official cultural presentations—museum exhibitions of costumes, Indian parades at local festivals, concert performances of traditional chanting—owe much to the ongoing popularity of Indian music. 


Parade and Celebration for BIG CHIEF BO Dollis SR


From an article @ Perfect Sound Forever ( "Taking the second line beat of New Orleans and turning it into a party on plastic, the Wild Magnolias Indian tribe (note: not Native-American but Mardi Gras Indians) take chunks of Big Easy musical history and churn it into a stew as appealing as a good bowl of gumbo- they quote and cover everyone from Huey 'Piano' Smith and Fats Domino to the Meters and Dr. John.  Their call-and-response chants have the familar ring of gospel as they shout out their catch-phrases so much that they become funky mantras.  The real miracle is that leader (Big Chief) Theodore 'Bo' Dollis and his tribe (group, if you like), including the inimitable Joseph 'Monk' Boudreaux, have kept the party going something fierce for a quarter century now after the fact- how many of you reading this can say the same thing?  I sure as hell can't.

The Wild Magnolias – They Call Us Wild (1975, Vinyl) - Discogs

After a few lengthy breaks, the Magnolia tribe came back strong last year with Life Is A Carnvial (Metro Blue) and several national tours to spread the word that they were back in force.  The show that I caught recently in New York at Central Park was only overshadowed by the amazing romp I witnessed them do (in full gear no less) at the New Orleans Jazz and Hertiage Festival last year.

I had the chance to talk to pow-wow with the Big Chief after their triumphant Central Park show along with their manager Glenn Gaines, who would get so jazzed up during the show that he'd come out to play tambourine and toss beads into the waiting audience.

PSF: Could you talk about how you started out playing music early on?

On carnival day, we used to have Indian practices. We would go to local bar rooms and rehearse in the late '60's, doing Mardi Gras tunes, singing Mardi Gras Day. I met up with Quinton Davis, the guy who's in charge of the (New Orleans) Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was going to Tulane University at the time. He came to the Indian practice and he asked me to sing one of the carnival tunes for a 45. I told him that I'd try. So he put a band together called the New Orleans project with Willy Tee and a whole bunch of other great musicians.


So we went into the studio to do Handa Wanda. It's something we still play today. After we did that, he had gotten us a contract with Barclay Records in France. That's how our whole career started.

PSF: What was it about New Orleans that made up such a rich, constant flow of music that helped you start your career?

I wasn't really trying to become a part of the New Orleans music scene. I was just dressing as an Indian, enjoying myself. I'd been doing that since the late '50's. So, by the time I met up with Quinton, he just got me to do it more commercially. Before, we'd be walking up and down the streets in our costumes with tambourines, bass drums, conga drums. We'd just sing whatever would come out of our mouths. We'd make up songs as we go.


PSF: How did you get involved in a Mardi Gras Indian tribe originally?

I got involved because of a neighbor. I was about nine-years-old and used to go and watch him prepare his Indian suit, sewing it up. So he'd ask me to help him with it. My momma caught me doing that and told me to go inside. I said 'I'll make me an Indian suit one day.' What he did was that he gave me an old Indian suit that he had. I redid it and changed this and changed that. Then, I started out as an Indian. By then, my momma was cool with it but my daddy didn't go along with that. He said that Indians used to fight.

There was a turf thing going on at that time. Downtown Indians couldn't come uptown. Back of town Indians couldn't come into other areas. They were really fighting. But when I started, all that ended. Instead, the way that they would compete is to see who had the best costume out there. It wasn't fighting anymore- it was more a challenge with the costumes.

PSF: Why did all of that change?

Well, I guess as time went on... to me, it didn't make any sense. Getting beat up just because you were from uptown. The younger Indians, they tried to change all that. A lot of the older Indians were dropping out, getting too old. (laughs) We used to walk around seven or eight miles, going uptown or downtown. So all the fighting stopped and we started with the songs, challenging each other with lyrics. That's how we challenge each other now. With music, who had the baddest drummer leading the second line.

PSF: When did you see this change?

I would say around... the late Fifties. Around '57 or '58. You still had a few little squabbles but it wasn't a whole tribe doing it.



PSF: What can you say about another famous Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas? Any rivalry there?

I never had a rivalry with them. (George) Jolly used to be my second chief. What he did was that he came to me and said 'Bo, Jolly live way out front.' He used to manage me 'cause he didn't have a tribe. So he said he wanted to get a tribe where he was the chief. When he started out an Indian tribe, I used to go there and help him out. He had about 12 Indians out there. He started the Wild Tchoupitoulas, there wasn't any bad blood or anything. I love to see more Indians. The more Indians out there, the better Mardi Gras you have. It's not any fun being out there, not seeing other Indians around. You're there to show them your costume. But me and Jolly never fought. It was the Wild Magnolias, Wild Tchoupitoulas all the way around. 

PSF: Most people from outside of New Orleans don't understand the make-up of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Could you talk about that? You have people like a Spy Boy and a Flag Boy in the tribes, for instance.


Performance Traditions and the “Mardi Gras Indians” in New Orleans - AAIHS

Spy Boy, what his job is... if you have a good Spy Boy, you can find any gang in the city. He knows just where they are. If you're on a bad street, you're going to miss them. Spy Boy is out looking for the tribes. Spy Boy pass a signal to the Flag Boy that a gang is coming. So the Flag Boy is supposed to relay that back to the Big Chief. It's up to the Chief to say 'Meet 'em' or 'Go another way.' But you never go another way. You always gotta send a signal that we're here. Spy Boy and Flag Boy have to meet and find these other gangs and doing all the serious walking around town to do that. You gotta be out there and you gotta be good. You have some Spy Boys that know just where they are. They can get 'em (the other gangs) from the middle or catch 'em from the back. Lot of gangs don't like to be cut from the back. Can't get all the Indians back in time to protect the Chief. Spy Boy is supposed to meet a chief but I don't let mine do that. I always to turn his gang around. 


Costume and Masking Culture | New Orleans

PSF: What do you think makes up a good Indian costume?

The most important thing is probably how much time you can put into it and how much money you can put into it. It's who got the best rhinestones, who got the best crown, who got the best designs in the rear of their crowns, who made the perfect Indian suit. Everyone tries to make the perfect Indian suit. Some just outdo others. 

Big Chief

Big Chief Monk Boudreaux

PSF: You're also with another tribe called the Golden Eagles, right?

That's Monk Boudreaux. I don't record with them but we perform together. We came up together and put together a musical group. It had a few other guys with us that we put together to make the commercial side of it.

PSF: What do you see as differences?

My Wild Magnolias costumes might be more bigger than what Monk would have on for Mardi Gras. He'd been doing his costumes since back in the '50's and he always had more rhinestones on it. If you've ever seen my costume, you'd know it was bad though. In terms of size, he does his much smaller. 


New Orleans Wild Magnolias – Book from Riggs Entertainment LLC

PSF: I saw the full costumes you have when you played at last year's Jazz and Heritage festival. They were amazing- these huge, elaborate dresses. I imagine that's pretty hard to take on tour, right?

My suit... It takes so much out of me when I try to do a gig with the whole costume on. It's real heavy and it's HOT! I can't perform in that all the time. So when we came out here to do a tour, I just decided to wear my regular clothes. But the other Indians on the stage wear theirs. Sometime, Monk don't wear his. It would get so hot and it would take a lot out of him. (laughs)


Mardi Gras Indians @ Rehearsal in a local bar

The Indians also gather together on Sunday afternoons for what they call Indian Rehearsals. At the rehearsals they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs, dance, and fellowship. This may be seen as a modern-day extension of festivities held by blacks on Sunday afternoon in Congo Square, New Orleans, many years ago.

Mardi Gras Indians are a prominent and vital thread in the tapestry of local culture. Once seen only on Mardi Gras day and St. Joseph’s Day night by a select few, today the Indian has become a fixture at events all over the city and throughout the year. “Super Sunday” has become a popular springtime outing for a diverse crowd of spectators who come to see the tribes in three neighborhoods: Uptown, Downtown, and the West Bank. At the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, tribes parade through the fairgrounds and appear onstage. Chiefs such as musician Donald Harrison Jr. and the late plasterer, Tootie Montana, became respected public figures and voices of the community through their Indian-related activities. And new tribes have continued to form even after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrating the vitality of this cherished local tradition.



'Indian Red' Is The Anthemic Sound Of Tradition

Rare Footage of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians









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