The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans: A Study in the Subversive Use of Carnival Traditions

Authors: Robert Brown*, Appalachian State University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, United States
Keywords: Mardi Gras Indians, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Black Geographies
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Napoleon D3, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Mardi Gras Indian culture emerged in the late nineteenth century among working class African Americans in New Orleans. The tradition continues today. Various “tribes” employ historically imagined American Indian motifs to craft ornate costumes (“suits”) each year in preparation for North American Carnival. This paper explores the symbolism, as well as the embodied activities, of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition through the lens of Carnival culture. I argue in the paper that Mardi Gras Indians originally (as they do today) subverted and coopted Carnival practices as a means to surreptitiously facilitate a public--indeed spatial--assertion of African American masculinity and power.

Carnival traditions normalize and encourage symbolic violations of prevailing social, political, and cultural strictures. In nineteenth century New Orleans, white authorities likely observed African Americans as simply portraying American Indians for the Mardi Gras festivities. I believe, however, that through the traditions of Carnival, African Americans found a way to openly move through the streets of New Orleans in freedom and dignity, free from the interference of whites.

This paper seeks to interpret the cultural iconography, images, and actions of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians in order to demonstrate that Mardi Gras Indian culture is only tangentially related to Mardi Gras. I argue that Mardi Gras Indians, since at least the 1880s, have used Carnival as a vehicle for cultural expression and political action.

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