“Who knows the South? It is a land of beauty and horror, of cultivation and refinement, laid over misery and degradation. It is a land of tremendous contradictions….the South remains our romantic land. It remains so because it is. I have seen the red clay of Georgia reveal its color in the dawn and the bayous of Louisiana glitter in magnolia-scented moonlight. There are no crude facts about the South which can ever kill the romantic effect of these on my imagination.” — Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist In America (1937)
Last month I took my first trip to the American South, to New Orleans, Louisiana. I visited the Ogden Museum of Southern Art on recommendation from my local friend and fellow Conversation X-alumn, Sara L. Ogden’s walls are filled with the work of southern artists such as Benny Andrews, Clementine Hunter, and Bo Bartlett, and the museum is dedicated to a singular question: “What is the Southern Identity?” With civil war ties and a complex history riddled with slavery and colonization, the South is a patchwork of identities, legacies, and sensibilities. At the same time, it has a locals-only feeling that seems unparalleled by other metropolitan areas in the United States.
This enigmatic cultural patchwork is how I found myself thinking of the Mardi Gras Indians, a New Orleans tradition in which local participants are divided into several rivalling groups known as ‘tribes’ and parade the streets wearing Native American-influenced costumes. These colourful and ornate costumes can weigh up to 150 pounds, covered with hand-sewn sequins and feathers. Like the rest of the crowd of locals and visitors, I was immediately taken into the experience of watching the tribe members flaunt their impressive costumes. The structure of the experience felt reminiscent of 1980s New York City ball culture, with rivalling groups’ battles fought through the grandeur of costumes and skillful peacocking. In years past, the tribes, led by Big Chiefs, were heavily associated with gang culture and often engaged in physical brawls after the parade. These days, as I am told by a local taxi driver, you’ll only find trouble if you try to parade in costume as an outsider not associated with a tribe.
It wasn’t until arriving home in Toronto and doing some research that I realized the historical significance of the Mardi Gras Indians as a manifestation of multiple layers of Louisiana history. It should be critically noted that the word “Indian” is, at least in Canada, considered derogatory toward First Nations people due to its incorrect origin — when European colonists mistook finding North America and its people for the “discovery” of India. Nowadays, “Native American” or “First Nations” are the most widely accepted descriptors. The tradition, still, is born out of respect to the legacy of the Native American people of Louisiana who provided shelter to escaped slaves or those who were eventually able to buy their freedom from French slave owners. This legacy is paid tribute to, in part, through the Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indian tradition. However, to add complexity to this cultural artifact is the fact that during the Civil War, many freed slaves were organized by the United States Army into all-black cavalry and infantry regiments. Eventually known as the Buffalo Soldiers, these groups served in the “Indian Wars” and fought to dispel Native American groups from Louisiana due to competition for land and resources. The Cheyenne people had reportedly named this type of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”
There is a violent history here, but also a bond between Native American and African American communities as victims of European colonization in the South. And it serves as an interesting answer to the question, “What is the Southern Identity?” As Thomas Hart Benton said, the South is “a land of beauty and horror, of cultivation and refinement, laid over misery and degradation.” The Mardi Gras Indian tradition reveals unlikely unions built out of the tragedy of slavery in Louisiana, and the growth that can come from the ashes of trauma.