The tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans is older than the city itself. Tribal origins date back to the 1700′s, but like much of the city’s history, these origins are shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Guardians of the Flame, the Black Seminoles, Creole Hunters, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Eagles, Wild Magnolia, the Flaming Arrows… are but a few of the names that have survived to modern times. There are over 50 tribes in the city according to some. This is history, culture, pride and evolution in graceful action.
|"My spy-boy say your spy-boy"|
Unfortunately, they were betrayed, and a bloody massacre ensued with some of the slaves beheaded, and their heads placed on pikes on the levee as a scare tactic. However, the secret alliances born in the wake of these horrors did not die. Native people continued to help slaves escape to the maroon camps in the swamps. According to author Willie W. Clark Jr., “in 1746 archives begin to refer to slaves dressing as Indians, as the African-Americans began to celebrate Mardi Gras in their unique customary fashion. These were in all likelihood, the first known “Black Indians.” So it begins...
The classic Voodoo and Mardi Gras intersections appears to have occurred in 1884 when the gatherings in Congo Square were forcibly ended and then reemerged as processions. In the classic West African Voodoo model, these societies, called gangs, were structured with territories, shy boys, flag boys, chiefs and wild men. The earliest such known appearances were the Creole Wild West who assumed the guise of Native American Plaines Indians.
When the dispersed Congo Square groups reappeared on Mardi Gras as gangs, in the guise of Plaines Indians, they danced and chanted in various choruses of nonsensical syllables. Many of these chants have now become recorded musical ventures. Songs like the well known, “Iko-Iko” are constructed mainly of un-interpretable nonsensical syllables. Some will claim they are long forgotten Indian chants, some that they severely corrupted Creole French patois and some confess the words come to them in dreams.
“Hey Now! (hey now) Hey Now! (hey now) Iko-Iko all day… if you don’t like what the Big Chief say, sing… Jac-o-mo fina na!” …as the song goes.
When two tribes meet, there are elaborate movements, dances, rituals and customs that happen, it is a sight to behold. The Wildman’s job is to clear the way, so the meeting can begin. Spyboy meets spyboy, and so on until the Big Chiefs come together. They chant, sing, greet, and posture with each other, in an elaborate ceremony that has evolved over centuries. What in archaic times was a dangerous confrontation, is now a display of respect and honor.
In spite of the mindset that Voodoo is a stationary ritual exercise, it is just as importantly, and literally, a procession, (called egungun), in which the same intentions and displays exist. Voodoo in New Orleans has both conceived and fused with the city’s musical and festival cultures. To find a real Voodoo ceremony today, one need not know where to look for it, but how to look for it.
See also… Mardi Gras and the Illuminati