My Rouses Everyday, January | February 2018

The Carnival season, in all its over-the-top glory, has more than its share of impressive spectacles.

Block-lonag Super Krewe floats lit by pulsing neon. Flambeaux carriers sweeping kerosene fire under live oak canopies. The Richter-scale blast of St. Augustine High School’s Purple Knight Band, the famed Marching 100. The costumed inventiveness and seemingly infinite variety of the boozy Society of St. Anne procession.

But none of these experiences are nearly as flat-out overwhelming as witnessing masking Black Indians on the streets Mardi Gras Day. The thundering power of drumbeats and the throaty chorus of chants. Technicolor ostrich plumes jumping with every step. Glittering rhinestones catching the sun. Spectators crowding in to watch the intense, choreographed confrontations punctuated by the dance, and the slow reveals of intricately beaded patches.

[LEFT] Little Chief Bam (Kendell Cook, Jr.), Creole Wild West; [RIGHT] Gang Flag DooWee Robair, Hard Head Hunters

Practitioners of this distinctive African-American tradition mark Mardi Gras Day as the first day of their cultural year — a day when individual practitioners unveil their “new suits,” the result of a year-long project that causes calloused fingers and sleepless nights, and absolutely requires an exquisite mastery of needle and thread.

On Mardi Gras Day, the tribes roam neighborhood backstreets, searching for other tribes, eager for a chance to show off the handiwork they’ve created during marathon sewing sessions where they turned sheets of blank cloth into wearable works of art.

During the years that they “mask,” Indians spend most of their time laser-focused on that Mardi Gras morning looming in the distance, the most important deadline of the year.

There are a few other opportunities to see the Indians in action — they roam the Fair Grounds during Jazz Fest in seemingly random parades. And they gather for Super Sundays in three locations (Uptown, Downtown and on the West Bank) to show the year’s suit to the community at large.

But on Mardi Gras Day, it’s all about motion — searching the streets for other Indian gangs to compete with in rounds of ritualized combat. The confrontations follow a predictable pattern, with each rank of Indian (Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Wild Man, Queen and Chief) facing off against their counterpart from a rival tribe in a ritual competition of dance, song and artistic prowess.

On the streets, the action has an energy that can border on chaos, marked by cycles of intensity, bravado, joy and defiance. When tribes meet, the space between the two groups crackles with a power unique to Mardi Gras Day.

From the curb, spectators marvel at the suits, the feathers, the sequins and the beads — it’s sometimes hard to see the intangibles that don’t show so readily on this year’s suit.

But if you are blessed to get close enough, it’s possible to see the intricately beaded masterworks framed with folded velvet ruffles and towering feathered headpieces. Headboards that sparkle with inset crystal stones. Panoramic Western scenes rendered in carefully intertwined patterns of individually sewn beads. Three-dimensional geometric sculptures that boggle the mind in their sophistication and complexity. What you’ll be seeing is the final product of a full year’s worth of dedicated labor.

But what you won’t see are the raw materials and everyday sacrifices that made these suits possible. You won’t see the heavy canvas or flexible cardboard underneath the layers of beads or sequins, or the standard sewing setup for a long night’s work — a line of sewing needles pre-threaded and lined up on a cushion. The gatherings in makeshift studios, garages and living rooms where groups of Indians keep each other company through the early morning hours. Or the long string of coffee-fueled, round-the-clock nights working to get a tribe’s suits beaded, built, feathered and secured in time to march out the door on Mardi Gras morning.

And once they hit the door, the Indians are surrounded by family, friends and community members who’ve encouraged them since their last suit was made. The sunshine bounces off the beadwork and lights up the plumes, and it is time to head out into the day, to find the other tribes and celebrate the beginning of their new year.