One of the biggest events in New Orleans in March is Super Sunday. We are fortunate to often incorporate Mardi Gras Indians into our events to celebrate the culture and add vibrant color and activity to second lines and events, so we wanted to share the history and background of these important cultural ambassadors.
In keeping with traditions that date back to the 19th century, New Orleans Super Sunday is the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). During their processions, the participating Mardi Gras Indian tribes, led by their Big Chiefs, often meet other tribes performing colorful dances, chants and other rituals. Each tribe and their Big Chief try to outdo the other in a friendly competition witnessed by appreciative spectators.
Super Sunday is always the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th), in keeping with traditions that date back to the 19th century. The Mardi Gras Indian tribes process, led by their Big Chief, often meet other tribes performing colorful dances, chants and other rituals. It is exciting to witness the friendly competition.
There are over 50 Mardi Gras Indian tribes, and they have colorful names, originating in Native American tradition, and their chants and songs are rooted in tradition as well. The Mardi Gras Indians’ origins are believed to date back to antebellum times when escaped slaves sought and found safe haven among the various Native American tribes of the South. During the time these escaped slaves lived among the Native Americans they adapted some of their customs and later passed them on to succeeding generations.
The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians masking on St. Joseph’s Day dates back to prior to World War I. Catholic Italians were celebrating the holiday, which allowed the Mardi Gras Indians to celebrate more discreetly. Their night celebrations turned into a day parade on Sunday afternoon in 1970.
In the late 19th century, it was difficult for African Americans to be part of Mardi Gras parades and balls, which led to the creation of the Mardi Gras Indians. They paid homage to their Native American comrades by creating the elaborate feathered and beaded suits. The suits worn by the Indians are entirely hand-sewn, incorporating brightly colored feathers, beads and glittering sequins and rhinestones into a dazzling panoply of folk art. They are made up of a crown, dickie and apron. The beads are sewn together in a pattern on the front of the suit and apron to depict an illustrated theme, most often dealing with a historic or folkloric event.
The suits, which are only worn twice a year during Mardi Gras and Super Sunday (plus occasional special events like Jazz Fest) can weigh up to 150 pounds. The Big Chief’s headdress alone may weigh 50-75 pounds. Each year a new suit must be constructed entirely by hand. The suit is usually created in patches and the drawings are done freehand. Creating an entire suit takes six months to a year to complete.
If you aren’t able to catch the Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras Day or Super Sunday, you can learn more about the culture at the Backstreet Cultural Museum or the Donald Harrison, Sr. Museum and we’d love to help you incorporate them into your next event!