On the Friday before Mardi Gras, Victor Harris, the longest participating Mardi Gras Indian, pulled pieces of his Carnival day suit to show me the intricate beadwork that goes into the tradition. Harris, who is known as the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Big Chief of the Mandingo Warriors, estimated that he uses millions of beads to make a suit each year.
“Every bead is picked up one at a time and has its own stitch. Every single bead,” he told me at his home in the Ninth Ward. “You have to almost be insane to do that.”
It’s not only the sheer number of beads that is insane. Sewing them and other materials onto the suit can take a year and cost upward of $10,000.
This year marks Harris’s 55th “masking,” the culture’s term for participating, as a Mardi Gras Indian. It’s a tradition as difficult for an outsider to sum up as it is complex as the suit he wears on Carnival day. And, historically, even those who were aware of the Indians may have found it hard to actually see the tribes meet. Unlike other parades, the Mardi Gras Indians do not follow a particular route, but roam their neighborhoods in search of other tribes.
“Basically, this culture started within the inner city. You can go all the way back in time when [New Orleans] was segregated,” Harris said.
A product of black New Orleanians’ history of enslavement and then racial segregation — and a feeling of connection to Native American communities, who also faced white supremacy — the Mardi Gras Indian tradition dates back more than 150 years.
“By masking like Native Americans, it created an identity of strength,” writes Ronald W. Lewis in “The House of Dance & Feathers.” “In masking, [Mardi Gras Indians] paid respect and homage to the Native American for using their identity and making a social statement that despite the odds, you’re still not going to stop.” Lewis is the director of the city’s House of Dance & Feathers museum, which showcases the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and Skull & Bone Gangs.
When black New Orleanians weren’t allowed to participate in the city’s white-only traditions, such as attending parades or riding on floats, they came up with their own celebrations. Groups formed over time, each playing a part in making inner-city Mardi Gras a rich cultural experience. On Carnival day — the term they use for the widely known Fat Tuesday, the culmination of the Mardi Gras season — people transformed into their special characters to play their part.
“It was the most fun part of our life,” Harris said. “Everybody could just do anything you want, be anybody you want.”
For Mardi Gras Indians, that meant donning Native American-inspired suits and taking to the inner-city streets to go find other tribes to compete against through song, dance, charisma and aesthetics.
In the past, these confrontations could sometimes turn violent, but today, it’s about the pageantry and sense of community.
“The idea is that you sew all year and create a suit to meet the other groups that are in different neighborhoods,” said Rachel Breunlin, the co-director of the Neighborhood Story Project, a nonprofit collaborative ethnography organization that helps groups such as the Mardi Gras Indians tell their own stories through books (it published Lewis’s), exhibits, events and courses.
In 2018, the Neighborhood Story Project published “Fire in the Hole,” a collective oral history from Harris and other voices within the Mandingo Warriors tribe. The book is one of the only ones to be created by Mardi Gras Indians themselves, and profits from its sales go back to support their collective art.
It was through Breunlin that I met Harris. On our way to Harris’s home, Breunlin explained that while the ideal would be that a Mardi Gras Indian can sing, dance and sew a spectacular suit, they can still earn respect for standing out in any one of those individual categories.
Making a suit is a combination of art, craftsmanship, spirituality and sacrifice. Tribes come together to sew with one another, for one another, for hours a day while balancing the rest of life’s responsibilities.
For Harris, making a suit is a way of giving back to God. He starts without a plan; there’s no preliminary sketch, no ruler, no tape measure, no concept of how the suit will turn out. He starts at the center and works his way out, letting the suit’s design “manifest itself, in a sense.”
“God knows you can’t plan this," he said. “You have to really do it, and as you go along, the spirit’s going to be with you, but the spirit can take you so far, and it leaves you, too.”
When Harris created the Mandingo Warriors tribe, in 1984, he broke away from Mardi Gras Indian tradition by creating a suit to identify with his African ancestry instead of using Native American aesthetics. His suits now feature materials like raffia, grass and shells.
As Harris showed me how the pieces of his suit will ultimately come together, friends came and went from his home, such as his master designer, Jack Robinson, who has been working alongside the Big Chief since the ’80s. Other roles within the tribes include positions with names that include queen, spyboy, master drummer and wildman, each with its own responsibility. Community and collaboration is an essential element of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.
“They sew for one another — that is the primary thing that drives the culture,” Breunlin told me.
After six months to a year of work, which can include singing and dancing practice sessions, Mardi Gras Indians put on their suits, which can weigh more than 150 pounds, on Carnival day and set out to meet the neighboring tribes. The tradition went largely overlooked by the rest of New Orleans and the outside world for years.
“This was always a hidden treasure,” Harris said. “Because it was in the inner city, nobody never came within to see this.”
One way to witness the Mardi Gras Indians is to hang around the Backstreet Cultural Museum, in the Treme district, where Mardi Gras Indians are known to pass at some point during Carnival day. The museum, home to all of Harris’s previous suits that he donated, is worth a visit any time of the year.
Harris described the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indian as different from the greater city’s famous parades in that it’s a spiritual cultural ritual, as well as a comparatively more interactive social one.
“We interact with everyone,” he said. “We take pictures with people, we shake hands with people. We interact with them and we have fun with people. We’re the most social group in the city.”
For those who have the chance to see one of America’s most unique and inspiring traditions, note that personal photography of the Mardi Gras Indians is welcomed, but profiting from commercial photography of the culture without reciprocity is in bad taste.
Observing respectfully is the least outsiders can do. The spectators of this incredible American tradition benefit as much as the tribes who participate.
“It’s good spirit and it’s medicine,” Harris said. "It’s something not just to be out there, it’s something that makes people feel good, too.”