Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans

The Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardi Gras (Black Masking) Indians of New Orleans

By: Dr. Ansel Augustine (Drummer)


The Wild Tchoupitoulas are one of the more famous tribes of Mardi Gras (Black Masking) Indian culture of New Orleans.  They were formed around 1970 in uptown New Orleans.  Mardi Gras Indian history can be traced back to the 1700s.  Many historians say the history of the Mardi Gras Indians go back to when African slaves would run and hide in the bayous around Louisiana.  It was there that the Native Americans would take in the escaped slave and thus this tradition came about.  

 The term "Mardi Gras" Indians came about because the tribes would take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day to "meet" other tribes throughout the city to engage in various rituals.  There are no set routes. The Chief decides where the tribe will go.  Each Indian plays a specific role in the  tribe.There are almost 40 different Mardi Gras Indian tribes.  All pay homage to the Native and African ancestors through the suits they sew all year.  The feathers and ornate headdresses pay homage to the Native Americans.  The bead work and songs/chants are African (I help sew the suits and drum for the tribe).  All can be traced back to songs and drumming that took place during the gathering of slaves, natives, and free people of color in Congo Square in New Orleans in the 1700s.

The most sacred times for Indians are Mardi Gras morning and St. Joseph Night.  These were the times when the Indians could mask without fear of harassment from police because other cultural groups were celebrating in the streets of New Orleans (although there were many times when the police and Indians did clash)  

Presently there are also 3 designated Sundays, known as Super Sundays (uptown, downtown, and Westbank) where the tribes gather and parade through those parts of town as well.  Many of the Indians that mask are connected to the Choctaw tribe of Louisiana and Florida.  Many fight today to gain recognition of their Native status.  The present BIG CHIEF of the tribe, Roderick Sylvas (Chief Bald Eagle), is fighting for the rights of all Natives in the area. 

The Wild Tchoupitoulas became famous due to their music.  The famous New Orleans groups, the Neville Brothers and the Meters, were affiliated with the tribe.  The Wild Tchoupitoulas even released a popular album in the 1970s.  Although the tribes have become part of New Orleans tourism culture and can be found at various New Orleans themed events, one must remember that this is not entertainment, but a sacred culture that is indigenous to this country. 


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