POSTED: Monday, February 20, 2012 - 12:15pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 11:30pm
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WYM) — They’ve walked the streets of New Orleans for hundreds of years. With their heads held high and their sights held steady, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans have reveled in the Louisiana sunshine. Amidst the numerous onlookers, they’ve been performing with their earliest appearances dating back to the 1800s - and no showing has ever been the same.
Mardi Gras Indians are a version of home-grown royalty, but go often unrecognized by tourists or locals alike. To date, there are reports of up to 50 individual tribes in the New Orleans area. Although some tribes are older than others, the history of the Indian is a widely debatable topic. Depending on who is talking, the origin of the Mardi Gras Indian may differ. The most popular and widely accepted lineage of the Mardi Gras Indian is said to pay homage to the Native Americans who offered refuge to escaped African Slaves.
No matter which story you hold true, or perhaps a combination of them all, one thing has stood fast throughout history - the remarkable beauty and pageantry of the Indians themselves. To see these men and women walking down the streets ever so slow, yet seemingly too fast is an awe-inspiring occasion. Amidst the indulgences of the carnival season and the overcrowding of the streets, the Indians offer a refuge of an intriguing, yet secretive culture. Although many interested parties seem to focus on the history and composition of the tribes, very few stop to truly see and appreciate what goes into the making of a Mardi Gras Indian costume.
Growing up in New Orleans, we know of the Indians... but most of the time we take them for granted. They’re a part of our life and your history, but even I have never really asked, “How do they do it?” Mrs. Anita Francis, who with her husband owns the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, was kind enough to open her doors and giving me a look inside the life and history of an Indian rarely heard or seen. As I walked up the stairs, Anita and her husband Sylvester greeted me with lively music in the background. Once inside the museum, I was overwhelmed with a sense of home. The long hallway draws your eyes to a feast of colorful, visual treats while the architecture of the re-purposed home preps your soul for a story like you’ve never heard.
Being a Mardi Gras Indian is a lifetime commitment, while the construction of the costume itself takes an entire year to complete. Very few know that from the tops of the feathers to the bottom of their rhinestone encrusted boots, every detail of the Indian costume is hand designed, selected, and sewn by the Indians themselves.
The tradition of making all costumes by hand begins as soon as a child can hold a needle - some as early as eight years old. Children learn the basic skills by drawing patterns and sewing beads on a simple piece of cloth or canvas. As their skills increase, the elders continue to expand the children’s talent to more elaborate challenges - sometimes a headband or mask. Eventually, they become skilled artists with unlimited capabilities and challenges set before them.
From there, each Indian will hand select his or her own materials, often traveling as far as the fashion hub of New York to select just the right ones. With a simple beginning of canvas and cardboard, these elaborate designs begin in nothing more than the Indian’s own imagination. As they begin to draw and sew, a story becomes a picture of love, turmoil, or triumph - many times what he or she is experiencing in their own life. As the beading and rhinestones begin to take shape, the portrait of a warrior is made into a beautiful depiction of the life of a true New Orleanian. Indians sew day-in and day-out to for an entire year to complete these works of art , which often reach heights of eight or nine feet and weight in upwards of one hundred pounds upon completion.
Indians take great pride in their costumes, showcasing their talent and beauty in a way only a native to New Orleans could do. The tradition culminates with the destruction of that year’s masterpiece - never to be used again. It is custom to never reuse even a single bead, feather, or rhinestone, thus making the tradition an extremely costly one. In a world where materials and fashions are often reused or recycled, this may seem wasteful or elaborate to some.
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