Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets in centuries-old spiritual tradition

Mardi Gras Indians show their feathers for 2013
(Gallery by | The Times-Picayune)

On Mardi Gras 2013, 6-year-old Jiaya Craft woke at 3 a.m. and told her mom she was already itching to put on her yellow, feathered, hand-beaded costume, and march along Claiborne Avenue as one of the littlest Mardi Gras Indians. “She thinks she’s famous today because everyone wants to take her picture,” said her mother, Arrianne Anderson, as her child stopped to show off the beaded seahorses on her costume, which was a year in the making.

Jiaya’s tribe, the Mardi Gras Hunters from the 7th Ward, was one of dozens to roam the streets Tuesday morning as part of a spiritual dance tradition that dates back at least a century. Their annual march is a prayer for peace and healing; a celebration of their African descendants, who escaped slavery and joined American Indian tribes.

“This is a tradition to appreciate how far we’ve come,” said Roger “Wild Man” Wilson, Big Chief of the Wild of the Nation tribe. His teal and white costume was topped with horns, to appear “mean-looking and rugged,” he said. It weighs at least 100 pounds and is decorated with intricate bird designs that took him the entire year to sew by hand. His fiancée said he wouldn’t let her touch it; he likes to do it all on his own.

“I get to show my beautiful work to people from all over the world,” Wilson said. “This takes so much time, every bead, every stone.”

Wilson began the Wild of the Nation tribe this year with his family from the Lower 9th Ward. Every year, they'll have horns, he said, but the costumes will be different. He said he'll begin making his 2014 costume on Ash Wednesday. That would be tomorrow.

One of his sons is his Spy Boy, who marches ahead of the rest, historically to keep watch for other, potentially menacing tribes. His other son is the Flag Boy, who carries the tribes colors ahead of the chief.

Wilson’s group marched through the streets, shouting chants and followed by men playing the drums and tambourines, to the Backstreet Cultural Museum on Henriette Delille St. in Treme, home of the famous Fi-Yi-Yi tribe.

Backstreet’s owner, Sylvester Francis, told the crowd – 100 people waiting for Fi-Yi-Yi to emerge – to be appreciative that the tribe was willing to share their work and their culture. They didn’t have to show up, he told the onlookers.

The Wild of the Nation tribe sang and danced on the museum’s front porch, then posed for pictures with tourists. “This is the meaning of Carnival,” said Francis, who served beers and mixed drinks and red beans and rice to the costume masses as they waited for hours for Fi-Yi-Yi to emerge.

Other tribe members wandered by. Albert Mercadel was dressed in a black feathered costume with a bird, a jewel in its mouth, emerging from the top of his headdress. He described himself as the witch doctor of the Washataw Nation tribe -- who gave himself carpal tunnel syndrome hand-sewing his elaborate costume. He posed for pictures, then blew a jeweled noisemaker. “Here I come,” he shouted to the crowd. “Here I come.”

Fi-Yi-Yi Chief Victor Harris has said that Mardi Gras is a day about healing.

At least one woman in the crowd, waiting for the Fi-Yi-Yi arrival outside the Backstreet, experienced the sort of blessing he described. As a drumbeat sounded from around the corner, at St. Augustine Catholic Church, a woman walked toward it, wailing and chanting, rattling a shekere.

Her head was down, covered in a scarf and she fell to her knees shaking in the street. The sound of the drums grew louder.

At the church around the corner, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang started a slow parade toward the museum, banging their drums, led by a skeleton on stilts. A crowd gathered nervously around the weeping woman, snapping cell phone photos, though seemingly unsure if she was part of the show.

The Skull and Bones Gang turned the corner and circled her, beating their drums. One wrapped his arms around the wailing woman.

As the skeletons continued on toward a dance circle in front of the museum, the woman remained there on her knees, still wailing and shaking her shekere, with two women holding her. They tried to wave off cameras and spectators. It wasn’t for show, they told the growing crowd.

Monica McIntyre, one of the pair left to comfort the woman, later said that the spirits had come for the woman, picking the “auspicious moment” of Mardi Gras and the Skull and Bone Gang’s procession to show up and heal the woman. “The spirit comes when it wants to,” she said. “That’s how the spirit works. And the spirit’s been working hard these last few days.”

The wailing woman, a visitor from Philadelphia named Nikki Powerhouse, said she came to New Orleans as a retreat. Outside the museum, she said, she felt something brewing, vibrating inside of her.

She saw a swirl of costumes. She heard the drums from around the corner and felt drawn to them. But she felt like she couldn’t reach them; she felt they were getting farther way, not closer.

As she fell to her knees, she felt weightless, she could hear nothing, she said. Her chant, she said, was about getting grounded and letting go.

“When change is necessary, sometimes it comes in a whisper. Sometimes it comes in a whirlwind,” she said. “This healing was about screaming, it was about tears. It was about letting go, submitting to a place of vulnerability.”

She felt something “snatched” out of her body, she said.

McIntyre, who practices the Japanese healing art of Reiki, said she facilitated the healing. “It’s like when a child is crying their heart out, and then get up and run. Whatever that was about, it’s gone,” McIntyre said in describing the feeling of a healing. “You’re just not carrying around what you’d been carrying around.” 

Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets in centuries-old spiritual tradition.