New Orleans Black Masking Indians- St.Joseph’s Night with the Flaming Aarows Gang

I may have missed Mardi Gras, but what’s catching beads when one can experience the magnificent and beautiful sights and sounds of who you may know as “Mardi Gras Indians,” but in New Orleans, we know them as Black Masking Indians. And I was able to be among them and others celebrating on St. Joseph’s Night under the Claiborne Bridge in New Orleans. Being amid these souls is an experience like no other, words alone can not explain. If I must give a comparison, I would say it comes close to having a spiritual awaking, like when one is filled with the Holy Spirit!

Since I was a little girl I have been fascinated by the beauty of it all, from the dazzling dancing, the bling of the bejeweled suits to the bigger than life headpiece with feathers like a peacock. I would watch in awe as the different tribes strutted down the streets of New Orleans as if it was a runway. The street fashion show would feature some of New Orleans’s raw, undiscovered hidden talent, who deserve to be titled costume designers. These creative New Orleanians put on the most significant cultural fashion shows that the big shots cannot compete with. I can’t get enough of it, and I will have my day to slay the streets of New Orleans to pay homage to those who paved the way!!!

It would surprise you to hear that back in the day these costumes could be made up of the things someone put out in the trash, bottle tops, chicken an turkey feathers, etc. However, the making of suits is very time extensive and very expensive. The materials alone can cost thousands and 5 or more hours a day over months is spent to make these great suits. The Black Masking Indians are regular working class, and they aren’t paid or given any grants or stipends for all that they do to continue the tradition. They aren’t paid for the long hours and miles that are spent parading in the streets of New Orleans, and they are photographed for free. With all the work that is put into the suits, they are only worn three times a year in which they are made, and that’s on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day and Super Sunday.

The Black Masking Indians, the birth of the culture and tradition was started in New Orleans supposedly as a way to participate in Mardi Gras. Today there are 42 Black Masking Indian tribes (also known as gangs) which are predominantly made up of African Americans from urban neighborhoods in Uptown or Downtown New Orleans.

The culture stems from a shared history and bloodline between African Americans and Native Americans. The vast majority of the history of the Black Masking Indians is oral, shared through family stories and tradition. The lack of documented history has caused debate on the culture from its origins and meaning. Those who are ignorant of the tradition tend to shun, bash and criticize it as well.

The history of the Black Masking Indians’ rich culture can be traced back to the 1700s during the founding of the New Orleans. The Black Masking Indian (Mardi Gras Indian) tribes of New Orleans are the oldest cultural organizations surviving from the original African tribes which were brought into New Orleans during slavery days. Some believe the culture was created in honor and observe the culture and traditions of the Native Americans who helped enslaved black people. Some believe Black Masking Indians claim direct Native American ancestry. Others think it was because of the intermingling of Native Americans and African Americans. I believe this may be, because of the black people accepted the ways of the Native Indians including marrying and having children together as escaping slavery. Also, I believe that enslaved black people may have dressed as Indians to avoid slave master and bounty hunters.

The Black Masking Indians, actually all African Americans were banned from participating in the Mardi Gras festivities which prompted them to host their own celebration in their neighborhood creating what we know now as “Carnival.” If you are familiar with Mardi Gras Krewe’s, you would understand that krewes are modeled after royal courts, with a king, queen, duke and so on. Back in the day, people of color were excluded from those krewes, so they created their own — the Mardi Gras Indian tribes/gangs and their organization are no different than that of Rex. Before slavery was abolished the tribes risked their lives to be a part of the Mardi Gras celebration. Historical records suggest that blacks were dressing up as Indians in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras as early as 1746.

On Mardi Gras in 1885, fifty to sixty Plains Indians marched in native dress on the streets of New Orleans. Later that year, the first Mardi Gras Indian gang was formed; the tribe was named “The Creole Wild West” and was most likely composed of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show,[2] though the “Indian gangs” might predate their appearance in the parades. The tribes went out on Mardi Gras Day because the police were focused on the tourist. Therefore, they could easily blend in with all the other costumes on the street.

They would wear a mask and face paint to go undetected. It wasn’t long before they were outed, arrested and I’m sure you know the rest. They risked their lives to preserve their culture and tradition, to show off their suits. They never asked for money or anything; they desired to show the world their talent like the rest of those who participated in Mardi Gras. They were determined to be apart of an event they were denied to be in because of the color of their skin. They were in essence, standing up for their right to participate in Mardi Gras. I’m pretty sure they (the poor working black New Orleanians) were the very reason for the success of the celebration just as the black people are now. From the creation of the beautiful floats to the cleaning of the streets Mardi Gras night they are involved and make Mardi Gras, actually the city what it is. As with all things Black New Orleans the people endure hell and all the while they kept on smiling and pushing on in spite of all that comes up against us. We will cry in the rain so that you wouldn’t worry about seeing our tears. Thinking of it like this makes me cherish the culture more so.

Unlike what is out there, the thesis of professionals paid to tell us our history, I believe what I was told about the lack of documented history on the Black Masking Indians from the stories passed on throughout my family. I was told that they had no choice, but to keep their organizations secret out of fear from who they referred to as “The White Man” at that time. There were stories of beatings to the police destroying their suits and supplies. We all know that organizations such as the VFW, Masons, the Krewe of Rex and etc. have secret policies and accept only individual members, but for a black organization to do the same some with judgment, it’s not fair.

I also believe that the harmful use of the word ”Gang” came about because the Indians did sneak onto the Mardi Gras scene and done so peacefully, but to put fear into the city the powers that be used this tactic and it worked. The undocumented accounts of bloodshed and hate towards other tribes are what we now know as ”false news.” The dancing and chants of the tribes were taken as a fighting ritual and all they were doing was reenacting a scene of once was. We pay to see all sorts of war reenactments, but this one just so happens to involve black people in the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. As I said, they did an excellent job at invoking fear because some in my family took caution regardless of knowing the truth. We had Black Masking Indians in my family as well as we have what we call ”Indian Blood. ” My grandfather and grandmother both had Blackfoot Indian grandparents.

The false news and gossip pierced the eardrums of families, some tuning it out while others not only turned it up but added to it. I can hear my Auntie right now saying, ” I’m not bringing y’all to see no Indian. They gonna be shooting and stabbing people out there.!” There was also the tale among the children of the Indians going around on St. Joseph’s Night scalping people with good hair to use for their long braids. None of these stories were right, and I never heard or saw anything on the news in my lifetime about violence related to The Black Masking Indians.

Then there’s the Big Secret… No one could know who a Black Masking Indian was. I wonder if the person under the headpiece knew he was a Black Masking Indian lol. I think this was also created to invoke fear in people as well. Masking is a tradition that is passed down within the family and still to this day tribes consist of blood family and close friends. This is another reason why I do not get gang labeling in a negative context. Black Masking Indians is not a gang like a street gang and its insulting to refer to it as such. Tribes are not like the Blood and Crips. The dances and body movement mimic fighting, yes, but there is no fighting going on. One does not need to fill out an application or perform some rights of passage to be a part of a tribe. All one must do is have a passion for carrying on the tradition and asking. Sorry, there is no gang initiation.

The only secrecy I can think of is the secret service type of lifestyle that is abided by when it comes to showing their suits before they are made. There some may not want certain people to know of their suits period. I remember one of my family members secret room, well his sewing and suit room where he kept everything for his suit making, from thread to fabric. He guarded that room like Alcatraz. He didn’t even let his wife in that room at times lol. I now wonder if he swore the person he brought feathers from to secrecy… Generally, when suits are being made others will come over, they will sing, drink, eat, bead and sew. I have witnessed the creations being made, and the most I was asked was to wait until after the day they wear it to share my pictures and video, but other than that the door was open for all.

There’s also some hush when it comes to parade routes, times and places are never told until days prior, but typically the Indians always end up at the same place each year, under the Claiborne Bridge or Shakespeare Park.

Aside from all the varying opinions and the what and whys behind the culture of Black Masking Indians, we must applaud the people who have feverishly kept this tradition alive. Slavery alone has taken a considerable portion of our history from us; leaving us unable trace our roots to pass our great grandparents. Recently Hurricane Katrina added to the loss of our heritage. Katrina came through destroying everything and everyone in her path, uprooting and changing the lives thousands of New Orleanians. Several of these families contributed to the continuation of the culture of The Masking Indians and like those who did not vacate during Katrina and those who came back they did so for the culture. The people of New Orleans, our ancestors and those who carry the torch are some of the most resilient people. We are brought up on the importance of togetherness, hard work, sacrifice, forgiveness, and love even love for the city of New Orleans. New Orleans is not just our birthplace or the town we call home, but New Orleans is us. The Black Masking Indians continue to mask to maintain their family’s tradition and contribution to our culture. Without them, the very people who give soul to everything that is New Orleans, there would not only be any more Mardi Gras but no New Orleans.

In this million, possibly billion dollar tourism industry of ours, the tourist who spent their money, the entertainment industry, photographers and so on come to experience New Orleans, and that entire experience involves seeing the people of New Orleans. In every visitor’s camera, the majority of the pictures are of New Orleanians, and the taking is for free. One can stay smack in the middle of the expensive French Quarter but can walk a few blocks to under the Claiborne Ave Bridge to witness the beautiful sights of the Black Masking Indians in their intricately beaded and decorated suits. Tourist, professional or amateur photographer can snap away without knowing the name of the tribe/gang or even saying hello. These people can go back home or work and share their photographs and stories of being in this urban New Orleans neighborhood with the Indians, street performers, etc. They rewarded, published and paid for their pictures and stories of people such as the Black Masking Indians, most spent most of their mediocre paychecks and time on these suits. And yet they continue on masking, keep on beating their plastic buckets, washing millions of dishes, cleaning the streets most with past due on bills, but they continue to be the unseen ambassadors and gatekeepers.

The people of New Orleans, the ones low on the totem pole do it for the culture and to keep their family traditions and priceless legacies alive. But in more ways, than we know it, the people of New Orleans remains the city with a heartbeat. New Orleanians love to see the expressions on the tourist’s faces when they eat our food. It rejoices our hearts to see you partying on our streets and brings pleasure to our ears to hear you say that this is the best trip of your life. This is all true for the Black Masking Indians their pay is hearing our wows and seeing the flashing of the cameras as if the lens is giving them winks of approval. They love to show off their talent by way of creating these elaborate suits. Then they serenade us with their chants and put on a war dance worthy of Broadway!!!. . These things makes waking up early and going to bed late after working a hard low wage job in the hospitality industry at a business we will never be able to patronize. It sad to say, but we, New Orleanians have not rid ourselves from ways of self-sacrifice since slaving in the fields and homes of the master. And that’s what I thought of with every snap. I did not know not one of the members of the tribe and even though I asked names and parties in the streets with them, I felt guilty for enjoying their hard work. The Black Masking Indians no matter the tribe/gang does not walk with a tip bucket as you see on Bourbon Street, there is no vendor table to buy any merchandise or homemade goods and if you offer them money in exchange for pictures, they will decline, and more than likely ask you if you want a drink. This one night I felt a little better because my outgoing Auntie Grace noticed the Chief asking for a cigarette and she went to buy him a pack.

I had a phenomenal night! I learned so much, and then I went on a search to learn more about not only the culture of the Black Masking Indians but about our heritage period. I’m so intrigued by my people. I’m proud of them as well. Moving to Minnesota years ago was the best choice for me back then. Living in Minnesota enabled me to attain an education and career that wasn’t available to me in New Orleans in the 90s. But living in the North with all the bounty and access to social services, jobs and housing lacked culture and family tradition. I’m not sure that knowing that the state of Minnesota would give you, your pot to piss in and keep your belly full the need for family togetherness dissipated. In New Orleans, we know we are our brother’s keeper, and we know we can not depend on handouts from the state, and maybe this is why we survive. We are all we have; we are family, we are a tribe, a gang of people committed to keeping our history, our culture, and our traditions alive. Had it not been for the Black Indians and their dedication and commitment to keep on masking the world today and New Orleans millennials wouldn’t know our ties to the Native Indians at all.

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