Mardi Gras Indians: can cultural appropriation occur on the margins?

March 30, 2010 — 20 Comments
Last week, the New York Times published a really interesting article concerning Mardi Gras Indians, specifically looking at the possibility of  the “Indians” copyrighting their costumes so their images can’t be used in things like calendars, promotional materials, etc, without their consent. I’ll get to that issue in a second post, but I think the entire concept of Mardi Gras Indians deserves a deeper look.
Let’s look at the ‘culture’ of the Mardi Gras Indians, independent of history and context (something the anthropologist in me cringes at, but work with me), then we’ll backtrack a bit.

These men and women call themselves “Indians.” They are members of “tribes,” with names like “Yellow Pocahontas,” “Geronimo Hunters,” and “Flaming Arrows” (a complete list of the tribes is here). They wear over-the-top, elaborate costumes based (very) loosely on American Indian powwow regalia–with headdresses, feathers, and beading (there is a slideshow on nytimes.com that can be found here):

(image via nytimes.com)

They have an anthem called “Indian Red” whose lyrics include:

I’ve got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won’t bow down, down on the ground
Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red
When I throw my net in the river
I will take only what I need
Just enough for me and my lover

Objectively, out of context, this is by-definition cultural appropriation. Imagine if these were white men and women. I should be offended…right?

But it’s complicated. The history of Mardi Gras Indians comes out of a history of shared oppression and marginality between the Black and Native residents, or some stories point to a desire to honor Native communities who took in escaped slaves. Wikipedia (again, the academic cringes, ha.) notes, of the history:

Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since the mid-19th century, possibly before. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as minorities within the dominant culture, and blacks’ circumventing some of the worst racial segregation; laws by representing themselves as Indians. There is also the story that the tradition began as an African American tribute to American Indians who helped runaway slaves.

I still see some problems with that, the “honoring” argument is what many proponents of Indian mascots use, but what it boils down to, for me, is the question:

Can one marginalized group appropriate another?

Inherent in the concept of cultural appropriation is the notion of power. The group in power takes cultural aspects of a subordinate community out of context and uses them how they see fit. These Mardi Gras Indians are African American, and arguably at the lowest economic strata of society (the nytimes article talks about copyrighting as a means to recoup money for these performers). They are by no means in a position of power over Native communities in Louisiana or elsewhere. The Mardi Gras Indian culture does not appear to come out of a desire to “play Indian”, and in many ways, it has moved outside of the realm of cultural appropriation into a distinct culture and community of it’s own. But above all, it seems the history comes not out of a relationship of power, but out of a shared position of marginality and discrimination.

So, in this sense, I find it hard to write my usual rant on an insensitive appropriation of Native culture, but, on the other hand, it still makes me uncomfortable.

Thoughts?

(thanks for sticking with me, I know that was a long one)

Nytimes article: In New Orleans, Getting Serious Over Suits: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/24/us/24orleans.html

NYtimes slideshow: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/03/24/us/0324ORLEANS_index.html?ref=us

Wikipedia on Mardi Gras Indians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mardi_Gras_Indians

(Thanks MK, Sees, and Kimball!)

Adrienne K.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06256222770843192063 Kimball

    I think you nailed it with “shared position of marginality and discrimination”; in other words, they’ve paid the price of being Indian to some extent, at least in my mind. It reminds me of the Freemen, descendants of former slaves whom were adopted Cherokee, another gray area case study.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04901157820779687718 Adrienne K.

    Thanks Kimball! yeah, it’s a really interesting issue, I’d be really interested to see what someone from the area has to say about it. I’m also going to post tomorrow about the idea of copyrighting the “suits”. Thanks again for sending me the link!

  • Anonymous

    Buffy St. Marie has pointed out that Mardi Gras Indians are Black Indian mixed people interpreting their own heritage – this is not cultural appropriation.

  • Anonymous

    It makes me uncomfortable too. I belive one marginalized group can appropriate another. I have seen a lot of this actually in Detroit. I saw an auto shop in the city that had a racist name to it – like a cheifs name or something. Does the term “invisibly minority” ring a bell? I think this plays a part all of this somehow.

  • Anonymous

    I use to think that only white folks romanticize Natives, but then through traveling,I realized that other people of color, do in fact, do it just as much(Hell, some of us romanticize ourselves. Lol.). I don’t personally believe that being a marginalized group gives you a free pass. In fact, maybe it should give you less of one, because you should know better. If nothing else, the names of their Mardi Gras “tribes”, are definitely appropriation. Also, the tribute seems to be to the concept of “Indians past”. If it is truly re-interpreting their own heritage as Natives of a bi-racial background, and or honoring the Natives that helped their Ancestors, why not have a relationship-if possible-with modern Native folks from their area(do they already? I don’t know. That’s a good question), instead of “honoring” us as past tense? Though the art work of their “suits” is obviously impressive, Is it really that different from the white people in Germany, or other parts of Europe, that do elaborate beadwork, and get dressed up and have “pow-wows”, all under the argument of “honoring” us? Hmm…

  • Anonymous

    Excuse me – mixed Native people need to have a relationship with non-mixed Native people to authenticate themselves?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13020006502343127866 Katie

    What really bothered me about the NYTimes article is how easily the author slipped into referring to these people as “Indians” and what they do as “Indian culture.” At the beginning, he delineated them as the “Mardi Gras Indians,” Yellow Pocahontas tribe” (?!), etc., but after a few paragraphs, they are just the Indians (without quotes), the tribe, Indian culture…

  • Anonymous

    “Anonymous said…

    Excuse me – mixed Native people need to have a relationship with non-mixed Native people to authenticate themselves? “

    Please don’t go insecurely off topic, and turn this into a mixed vs. non mixed issue.

    Obviously mixed people don’t need to hang around non mixed to “authenticate” themselves. *Obviously*

    But there is nothing about the “Mardi Gras Indians” that is Authentic to any particular Nation(that I am aware of)to begin with. If you go back and read what I wrote from a place of non-defensiveness, what I meant was having a relationship with their NATION, not individual Skins, per se, in their area.

    Again, we are not dead, so “honoring” us, by having a picture of a red-skinned(abnormally bright I might add. Referencing the top photo here)person in a headdress, on the top and bottom of your “suit” is not an honor. Interacting with the Nation who took in your family, or if the Nation who you are descended from(knowing who they are, where they are, customs, language, etc..)is a respectful way to “honor”. Putting a cartoonish version of modern day people on to your dance outfit, is not.

    Back to the names. That’s the part that sticks out the most to me, in terms of not only an ignorance, but no desire to remedy that ignorance- what the heck is a “Yellow Pocahontas” tribe?? “Flaming Arrows”?? “Wild Mohicans”?? “Wild Apaches”?? Even the use of the word “Wild” in the name of some of the tribes, is clearly offensive, and playing into noble savage stereotypes.

    I appreciate the concept of wanting to be more open-minded, because it’s another “marginalized” group. But if we reversed this, and a bunch of us started making elaborate “suits” based loooooosely on west african garb, while giving ourselves names like “Wild Negroes Tribe”, or “Pink Harriet Tubman Tribe”, while putting pictures of African-american leader status people on the front of our clothes in “black-face”, no one would be questioning how unbelievably inappropriate it is. Why is it even remotely acceptable for us to always be the butt of people’s ignorance? It’s not.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t have a patent on “we,” Mardi Gras Indians are not honoring “you” but themselves and in the present tense. Many urban Indians have primary relationships with their urban community and Mardi Gras Indians come from several Native American community so the idea that Mardi Gras Indians need an affiliation en masse or the assumption that individual M.G.I.’s don’t have relationships with their nations are both false.

    It’s funny how we as Native Americans can have a Redskin magazine or interpret our culture in less than reverent or tradish ways and its fine but let some black Indians do it and there’s a problem.

    And as for you trying to reverse the situation – Cherokee people already have what could be described as blackface bugah masks – is that unbelievably inappropriate? Ignorant? And, if some Indian people with black blood decided to have a Pink Harriet Tubman tribe – why should that be bad?

    You also seem to have confused authentic with – duplicate of the past. What Mardi Gras Indians make is authentic to their community which is a hybrid of many Native nations and black people, too. A fancy shawl outfit isn’t authentic to any particular nation either in the sense you use authentic.

    I don’t appreciate your rude tone or misinterpretation of my post, but I don’t intend to duplicate it.

  • Anonymous

    The “wild” in the Mardi Gras Indian names is satirical – it mocks white views of Indians rather than reinforcing the Noble Savage stereotype. You’re calling people ignorant based on tropes you don’t understand.

  • Anonymous

    The “wild” in the Indian names mocks white stereotypes of Indians rather than reduplicating the idea of the noble savage – you’re calling people ignorant based on tropes you don’t understand.

    For more information on Mardi Grasi Indians http://bintalshamsa.blogspot.com/2007/02/elements-of-carnival-in-new-orleans.html:

    I belong to an online group for Native Americans (NAs) and, a few years ago, one of the 24-hour news stations showed some footage of the Mardi Gras Indians. The next day, some members of the NA group logged on and left several scathing comments about how these black people were trying to mockingly imitate their culture…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13929693022957084629 ShaNic Design

    I agree Anonymous 1:56.

  • http://neighborhoodstoryproject.org/ Helen Regis

    Reverend Goat and the Backstreet Cultural Museum in New Orleans have organized a series of dialogues between participants in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition and members of Native communities. More is needed. For deeper insight into the meaning of Black Indian masking in New Orleans from insider points of view, see the House of Dance & Feathers, by Ronald W. Lewis and Rachel Breunlin (2009). Published by the Neighborhood Story Project and the University of New Orleans. Also films by Lisa Katzman (Tootie’s Last Suit) and Royce Osborne (All on a Mardi Gras Day)

  • Anonymous

    There are many “black Indians” who for many reasons have no recognized tribal identification. This does not mean they do now know their origins or are disconnected from their roots, it simply means TPTB have not seen fit to allow them to be included in the official rolls.

    Info on some black india organizations and on black indian identity in lousiana specifically.

    http://www.bnaa.org/history/

    http://www.frenchcreoles.com/BlackIndiansnew.htm

    http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a790189065

    http://www.blackcommentator.com/66/66_reprint_indians.html

    http://www.amazon.com/Black-Indians-William-Loren-Katz/dp/0689809018

  • Anonymous

    Great dialogue on this post – and I appreciate that! I agree with the posts that the Mardi Gras Indian’s tradition is just as genuine as any other tradition – it grew out historical events, societies living closely together and interracial marriages that resulted in blended traditions that are now being memorialized through a ceremonial cycle that includes special clothing that is intended as a reminder of actual historical events. Cultures and traditions are not static… they change, blend and grow – that is what keeps them alive – it is repressiveness that kills them.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, so the upshot is that so long as you, too, are a victim, I will overlook your cultural useages? And if you are construed as dominant mainstream your ignorance is then a cancer?

    This is easy thinking, lazy non-reasoning.

    There is, of course, depth and complexity to the MGI tradition, and the context of blood-braiding up is Culture 101.

    I am finding that the original musing viz “whites are offensive when they do it and I’ll find a way to forgive a person of colour” seems to remain a central and important piece for all of us to look at. Asking around to our thought leaders in academia and in ceremony might help us crack this code.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17286141967250293302 boomher

    thanks so much for the post. great thoughts on important and absent discourse.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08950457892490767440 Meeg

    I’ve been curious about how Native Americans viewed the Mardi Gras Indians. Although they are in a sense appropriating Native American imagery and identity, I do still think its a beautiful tradition. The outfits, which they make themselves, can be so creative and wonderful, and I think being a Mardi Gras Indian is also empowering for the participants. I do believe that they are honoring Native Americans in a way although it is true that the tradition doesn’t necessarily reflect a very deep knowledge of genuine Native American culture.

    This makes me think of “Zulu” which is the historical African American Mardi Gras parade. Interestingly enough, the people in the parade (who are almost all black) dress in costumes based on the way Africans were depicted a long time ago. They wear grass skirts, and black face paint with white around their eyes, and they handout coconuts to people. So the participants are basically re-appropriating an old, inaccurate and offensive image. Maybe this sheds some light on the Mardi Gras Indian tradition as well

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02496557849848541807 Will

    Interesting argument but it lacks real understanding. My name is Will and I work extensively to document preserve Mardi Gras Indian culture and have many ties to the community both personally and professionally.

    Mardi Gras Indian culture stems from a shared history and blood line between African Americans and Native Americans, the oldest known tribe is the Creole Wild West which dates back over 178 years. The vast majority of this history is oral and represented through daily lifestyle and habits.

    The sad truth is the there is only one Great Chief left who knows the old ways and stories his name is “Big Chief Monk Boudreaux”, next in line behind him is “Big Chief Donald Harrison”. There are several books and soon to be released documentary called “Burry The Hatchet” that reveals the closest look yet to what the truth is behind this unique culture.

    There is no appropriation happening here. It’s true Native Americans helped slaves avoid persecution, but this happened over generations and in time the cultures were combined. White history wants to dismiss this fact. Mardi Gras Indian culture is Native American culture and should be protected and classified as a unique branch of Native American culture.

    Anyone reading this who want more information and documentation of this should send me an email to iam.will.evans@gmail.com

    Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13346771468781382611 Lynette

    I am from New Orleans, and my significant other is an active member of one of the tribes. I am African-American and of Florida Seminole and Alabama Creek descent. I became familiar with both my heritage and Native American culture while studying and writing for a magazine at BYU. I find the traditions and the suit creation process deeply offensive, mostly because they are so far from authentic, most of these “Indians” do not even know if they have Native American heritage to honor, and they are not interested in authentic tradition. They have authenticated themselves.

    The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is a long-standing one that fascinates many, for the time and care taken with each suit and the stamina required to create the suit and to parade. Being a Mardi Gras Indian is, essentially, membership in a social aid and pleasure club. It combines the intent to honor Native Americans with what native New Orleanians do–we celebrate Carnival and we celebrate with what we have.

    It truly is meant to be an expression of brotherhood, and it is mostly poor/working class black men, women, and children who participate. They use, essentially, junk to make their suits–cardboard, plastic remnants, pipes, and store-bought sequins, beads, and feathers. And they parade the neighborhood showing off their work, and their brotherhood.

    Some say this way of engaging black men in the neighborhood is the answer to New Orleans’ crime problems. Though I’m embarrassed by the tradition and have refused to participate or attend Mardi Gras Indian social events, it is an organic, neighborhood level activity that is deeply personal to those involved. Native New Orleanians have deep respect for this type of neighborhood-level cohesion. So, to some extent, to outsiders, I say, “Leave us alone. It’s all we have.”

    In our house, I advocate against images of Native American chasing buffalo…or buffalo… That just makes my brain explode. But perhaps I will become more actively involved with the tribes. This tradition is not going away, but perhaps some education can reshape it going forward.

    This is a really fantastic discussion. Thanks for the article. I agree with it, and just wanted to weigh in since I’m from New Orleans and have a minority POV.