Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


The appliqued, beaded, and pieced textile sections or "patches" that are combined to form the ceremonial costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, Louisiana are widely considered to be one of the best examples of African-American folk: art in North America. Created in secret by black male gang members, these works of indigenous art are rarely seen outside the culturally isolated black neighborhoods.

The black Indian masking tradition sprang from a myriad of African-American heritage and nineteenth century experience in creole Louisiana The ritualistic combination of dance, music, chanting, and use of ceremonial textiles is still relatively mysterious to the white community. The purpose of this study was to interview masking members of the leading Mardi Gras Indian organizations. With the permission and cooperation of the Indian Council interviews were conducted and actual construction, practices, and presentations were observed. Tribe members were questioned regarding their design inspiration, sewing techniques, work habits, and training related to the actual production of the individual patches, fabric, and suits. It is impossible to understand or truly appreciate the folk: art of the Mardi Gras Indians without an informed awareness of the complicated factors that have helped shape, transmute, and inspire them.

In Colonial America the foundations forged in the early Afro-American experience evoked distinctive expressions of a transposed heritage that have remained remarkably consistent and intact One of the more obscure African -American phenomena to emerge is the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Indians have been trivialized by the uninitiated as a colorful costume element of Pre-Lenten celebrations in the city. The "Indian" however, by situation and choice is not easily deciphered. He is not of Native American ancestry; not a part of the official, public, or elite Carnival; not satirical in nature; not part of a rural folk: tradition or mainstream religious expression. The Mardi Gras Indian tribes are wrapped in enclosure and yet preeminent in influence within the working-class black neighborhoods in which they exist.