With a planned “cultural campus,” New Orleans’s famed costumed tribes hope to take back their image.
No one can say for sure how many Mardi Gras Indian tribes there are in New Orleans. That’s always been an open question. There might be two dozen tribes, 40 tribes, or more—some with dozens of members spanning generations, some of them upstart tribes of a single individual. Fewer tribes are donning full regalia now than they were before Hurricane Katrina, in all likelihood. But that’s changing.
“Post-Katrina, some guys didn’t come back, definitely,” says Big Chief Tyrone Casby, the head of the Mohawk Hunters, one of the city’s largest tribes. “Some guys lost a lot of stuff during the storm,” he says, referring to their distinctive costumes, part of the rich pageantry for which the Mardi Gras Indians are known. “In light of that, we still have other guys who are trying to form tribes.”
The tribes’ place in New Orleans is changing, too. In the wake of Katrina, the Mardi Gras Indians have emerged as a spiritual (and commercial) symbol for the city’s recovery—in large part, by no doing of their own. That’s one reason why the Mardi Gras Indians Council, a confederation representing some 10 active tribes, is working to establish a new Mardi Gras Indians Council Cultural Campus. A physical performance and museum space, the campus is the first step toward formalizing and preserving a culture that is growing more visible within New Orleans—and yet is still at risk of falling into obscurity.
Last month, with the help of the Foundation for Louisiana and the Tulane City Center, the Mardi Gras Indians Council secured a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a public–private partnership that supports the use of arts in community planning projects. The grant will serve as the bedrock of a $1.4 million plan to restore a sequence of rowhouse properties and lots on LaSalle Street, adjacent to A. L. Davis Park, which is considered sacred by many Mardi Gras Indians.
The Cultural Campus will explore a history that is rooted in the neighborhoods of New Orleans. Many histories, really, from tribes uptown, downtown, the back of town, and elsewhere across the city. Some tribes can trace their roots back more than a century to freed slaves who served as Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War; the masking, dancing, and singing traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians date back even further, to the 1740s, when the area was under French rule.
“We wanted one central location where individuals can come to get a whole understanding of the Mardi Gras Indians,” says Big Chief Casby, who serves as an officer on the Mardi Gras Indians Council. “Some folks don’t understand the significance of what we do.”
Yet many more people are aware than ever before. Since Hurricane Katrina, the culture has shifted beneath the tribes’ feet. The popular depiction of Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux in Treme, an HBO production by David Simon (The Wire, Show Me a Hero), boosted the visibility of the Mardi Gras Indians. Police have frequently clashed with tribes on St. Joseph’s Day and “Super Sunday,” the major parade days on the Mardi Gras Indians calendar; the tribes or “gangs” fought with one another for decades, too.
Relations between the tribes and law enforcement hit their lowest point in 2005 (before Katrina), when police detained Mardi Gras Indians on St. Joseph’s Night, arresting some. Months after the March incident, in a City Council hearing over the harassment that the tribes said that they endured from police, the elder Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe briefly testified—then collapsed and died. The Mardi Gras Indians didn’t reach détente with police until another fateful meeting in 2012, according to The New Orleans Advocate.
Since then, the city has embraced the tribes openly, inviting them to participate in the world-famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and featuring their likenesses in tourism campaigns. History has come full circle: Many of the Mardi Gras Indians’ traditions were spurred by the fact that African Americans were not allowed to participate in the city’s formal carnival. Today, a tradition that has never tried to turn a profit is struggling against a copyright crisis in the form of the calendars, prints, and other merchandise that features the tribes’ likenesses.
“Their culture, like many things in New Orleans, was threatening to disappear—because of Katrina, because of neighborhoods being scattered, because of populations not coming back,” says Maurice Cox, now the director of city planning in Detroit and previously the director of the Tulane City Center, an urban design and research program within the Tulane University School of Architecture. “They saw their imagery being co-opted by mass media and official tourism venues.”
Cox began working with Mardi Gras Indians Council chiefs on a unified vision for the tribes in 2013. Other Tulane City Center faculty had collaborated on other projects for individual tribes in the preceding years.* In 2012, Scott Ruff and Emily Taylor, working with a team of Tulane students, designed and built the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum and Guardians Institute, a cultural center dedicated to the tribal elder and chief of the Guardians of the Flame in the Ninth Ward. (The character of Treme’s Big Chief Lambreaux, played by Clarke Peters, was largely based on Harrison).
Architects with the Tulane City Center also designed and built the House of Dance and Feathers, a neighborhood museum in the Lower Ninth Ward founded and curated by Ronald W. Lewis. He’s another biggie: a former chief of the Choctaw Hunters tribe, former parade King of the Krewe de Vieux, and president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which hosts second-line parades. (It takes a big culture to produce as many parades as New Orleans does: There’s a second-line parade marching somewhere in the city almost every weekend.)
The Cultural Campus project will be a different beast, however. It honors all the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, or as many as have chosen to participate, as well as other closely related aspects of the second-line and krewe cultures. “They charged us to assist them in finding a way to preserve their culture,” Cox says, describing twice-monthly meetings with the Mardi Gras Indians Council chiefs.
At first, the chiefs had envisioned a facility akin to these prior projects, a singular building that expressed something of their devotion to detail and ornamentation. That changed when the chiefs made a site visit with architects and city officials to A.L. Davis Park, the origin point for the Mardi Gras Indian parades on Super Sunday. The holidays mark the culmination of masking season, over which the Mardi Gras Indians build their feathered, sequined, beaded costumes. The parades enable the tribes and their various spy boys, first flags, chief scouts, and queens to support their big chiefs in a battle of pure “prettiness.” (It was Big Chief Montana who convinced the tribes to compete aesthetically, not violently.)
The Cultural Campus will serve as a milestone for the Mardi Gras Indians Council, a coalition that formed over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “That was the first time in the history of the culture that that many chiefs had gotten together without, I guess you’d say, a ruckus,” says Big Chief Casby. According to Cox, during the site visit to A.L. Davis Park, the council elders agreed on a plan to make them “guardians of the park”—a series of vacant lots and rowhouses just across LaSalle Street.
“The original design, as it stands right now, is to renovate those homes and that lot to create the administrative and art and cultural space,” says Flozell Daniels Jr., the president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, which gave the Mardi Gras Indians Council a $70,000 grant to support the Cultural Campus in its earliest stages.
If Big Chief Casby had his way, the Mardi Gras Indians would make their campus on the West Bank, the home of his Mohawk Hunters tribe. But part of what makes the A.L Davis Park site ideal is that all the Mardi Gras Indians tribes share a stake in it. Each of the tribes can use it to sell their wares, develop performances, and teach new generations about all those who have masked before. (And perhaps even to confront the criticism, held by some Native Americans, that the Mardi Gras Indians ultimately co-opt a culture that isn’t theirs. The counterpoint to this critique is that African-American and Native American populations in New Orleans built a hybrid culture under European American rule.)
Recent changes to the site’s prospective plan, which is still in its early stages, mean that a design scheme isn’t currently available, says Matty A. Williams, a Foundation for Louisiana Fellow who is managing the development process. The Cultural Campus will eventually include features such as community porches built at the scale of stages, plus archival storage centers for intricate costumes that can be as large as 15 feet high and weigh more than a thousand pounds. Every tribe has a distinct style of sewing their costumes, which incorporate everything from stones to turkey feathers. The Cultural Campus will examine the particulars of each tribe and the commonalities across the community as a whole.
“Treme opened up a culture that was born in the back streets …,” says Big Chief Casby. “But Treme is a fiction. To get the full truth? That’s why the campus is important.”
*Correction: This post originally misstated the involvement of Tulane City Center personnel on projects in 2012 and 2013. It has been clarified.