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The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans

Updated on September 11, 2010

A Funky Blend of Cultures, Black and Red

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of New Orleans culture, particularly Mardi Gras and New Orleans music, are the Mardi Gras Indians. Little is understood about the specific tribes and their activities outside of local legend. Unless you grew up in one of the neighborhoods where the gangs resided, you would be unaware of their presence and influence. New Orleans Mardi Gras is full of secret societies and the Mardi Gras Indians are among them. One thing is for sure, when its Mardi Gras time in the crescent City, the streets are graced with their colorful Indian costumes, confrontations, and call and response style of chants and Indian second line rhythms.

Who and What are the Mardi Gras Indians?

Background

There is an excellent article that describes in detail the history of the Mardi gras Indians, also known as the Black Indians. Following is an excerpt from that article followed by a link to the full article. I highly encourage anyone who is interested to read it.

A Short History of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans

Independently researched by Willie W. Clark Jr. (1999)

The Black Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans are a unique sub-culture of a highly diverse and complex group of the local population . The tradition of these masking Indians, dates back to the 1700's. The scholars that claim to know the origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (a two hundred year old tradition) sometimes conflict on the precise history. As a result of this lack of a solid path in the knowledge of Indian history, many theories abound, but this much is for certain, the Indians have preserved some of their culture and history in the guise of tradition, and that tradition at the time of Mardi Gras, is now an integral part of New Orleans. In the heart of New Orleans since the 1780's and perhaps earlier, this ancient colorful and artistic culture has been practiced. A culture, that be it known, exhibits all of that tradition, with some of the positive heritage, and is quite a unique history.

Read the whole article here: http://www.mardigrasdigest.com/Sec_mgind/history.h...

Big Chief

Big Chief
Big Chief

Masking

refers to wearing the costumes and donning the identity of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe.

Tribal Hierarchy

The Mardi Gras Indians play various traditional roles. These include the "chief", the "spy boy" who goes out in front of the group, the "flag boy" who bears the tribe's standard and uses it to communicate between the chief and the spy boy, and the "medicine man".

Long-time Mardi Gras Indian "Chief of Chiefs" Tootie Montana on Indian hierarchy:

"You've got first chief, which is Big Chief; First Queen; you've got Second Chief and Second Queen; Third Chief and Third Queen. First, Second, and Third chiefs are supposed to have a queen with them. That's just tradition. I found them doing that. Your fourth chief is not called fourth chief, he's the Trail Chief. From there on it's just Indians, no title. You also have your Spy Boy, your Flag Boy and your Wild Man. Your Spy Boy is way out front, three blocks in front the chief. The Flag Boy is one block in front so he can see the Spy Boy up ahead and he can wave his flag to let the chief know what is going on. Today, they don't do like they used to. Today you're not going to see any Spy Boy with a pair of binoculars around his neck and a small crown so he can run. Today a Spy Boy looks like a chief and somebody carrying a big old stick. It's been years since I seen a proper flag. Today everybody has a chief stick. The Wild Man wearing the horns in there to keep the crowd open and to keep it clear. He's between the Flag Boy and the Chief."

Who is the Spy Boy?

On Mardi Gras and on St. Joseph's night one member of a gang, the Spy Boy, runs reconnaissance missions around his gang's path, looking for feathers and listening for chants of rival gangs.

Mardi Gras Indian Tribes

Listed are more than 50 Mardi Gras Indian tribe names from in and around the New Orleans area. The oldest is Creole Wild West, founded in the 1800s. Some, like the Wild Squatoulas and Medallion Hunters, are no longer active. Others, such as Fi-Yi-Yi and Congo Nation, haven't yet reached their peak. If you're in the Crescent City during the Jazz & Heritage Festival or Mardi Gras, join the second line of their spectacular walk-around parades.

* 7th Ward Hard Headers

* 7th Ward Hunters

* 9th Ward Hunters

* Black Cherokee

* Black Eagles

* Black Hawk Hunters

* Black Feathers

* Black Seminoles

* Blackfoot Hunters

* Burning Spears

* Carrollton Hunters

* Cheyenne Hunters

* Comanche Hunters

* Congo Nation

* Creole Osceola

* Creole Wild West

* Fi-Yi-Yi

* Flaming Arrows

* Geronimo Hunters

* Golden Arrows

* Golden Blades

* Golden Comanche

* Golden Eagles

* Golden Star Hunters

* Guardians of Flames

* Hard Head Hunters

* Mohawk Hunters

* Morning Star Hunters

* Red Hawk Hunters

* Red White and Blue

* Seminole Hunters

* Seminole (Mardi Gras Indian Tribe)

* White Cloud Hunters

* White Eagles

* Wild Apache

* Wild Bogacheeta

* Wild Tchoupitoulas

* Wild Magnolias

* Wild Mohicans

* Yellow Pocahontas

* Young Navaho

* Young Brave Hunters

* Young Monogram Hunters

* Young Cheyenne

Mardi Gras Indians

Mardi Gras Indians
Mardi Gras Indians

New Orleans Music and the Mardi Gras Indians

The Dixie Cup's "Iko Iko"

was released on the Red Bird label in 1965 and climbed to #20 on Billboard's charting of R& B songs, in the process becoming the first Indian inspired song to escape New Orleans and make a mainstream appearance.

Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras Indian

Just what are the Words to Iko Iko?

One of the most popular songs of the Mardi Gras Indians is that of "Iko Iko", a song originally penned by Sugar Boy Crawford in November 1953 on Checker records and called "Jock-A-Mo." Most artists have sung the song phonetically, and thus incorrectly, without any understanding of the meaning of the words. This is because they do not speak Louisiana French Creole patois or the Choctaw and Chickasaw languages.

The story tells of a "spy boy" or "spy dog" i.e. a lookout for one band of Indians encountering the "flag boy" or guidon carrier for another band. He threatens to set the flag on fire.

Following is the "Iko Iko" story, as told by Dr. John in the liner notes to his 1972 album, Dr. John's Gumbo, in which he covers New Orleans R&B classics:

The song was written and recorded back in the early 1950s by a New Orleans singer named James Crawford who worked under the name of Sugar Boy & the Cane Cutters. It was recorded in the 1960s by the Dixie Cups for Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller's Red Bird Records, but the format we're following here is Sugar Boy's original. Also in the group were Professor Longhair on piano, Jake Myles, Big Boy Myles, Irv Bannister on guitar, and Eugene 'Bones' Jones on drums. The group was also known as the Chipaka Shaweez. The song was originally called 'Jockamo,' and it has a lot of Creole patois in it. Jockamo means 'jester' in the old myth. It is Mardi Gras music, and the Shaweez was one of many Mardi Gras groups who dressed up in far out Indian costumes and came on as Indian tribes. The tribes used to hang out on Claiborne Avenue and used to get juiced up there getting ready to perform and 'second line' in their own special style during Mardi Gras. That's dead and gone because there's a freeway where those grounds used to be. The tribes were like social clubs who lived all year for Mardi Gras, getting their costumes together. Many of them were musicians, gamblers, hustlers and pimps.

Here are the words as sung by Dr. John:

Iko iko, iko iko unday

Jockomo feeno ah na nay

Jockomo feena nay

My spy boy told your spy boy

Sitting on the Bayou

My spy boy told your spy boy

I'm gonna set your tail on fire

Talking bout hey now (hey now)

Hey now (hey now)

Iko iko, iko iko unday

Jockomo feeno ah na nay

Jockomo feena nay

My Marie told your Marie

Sitting on the Bayou

My Marie told your Marie

I'm gonna set your flag on fire

We going down to

Iko iko unday

We gonna catch a little?

With jockomo feena nay, now

Talking bout hey now (hey now)

Hey now (hey now)

Iko iko, iko iko unday

Jockomo feeno ah na nay

Jockomo feena nay

All right

See Marie down the railroad track

Iko iko unday

Said put it here in the chicken sack

With jockomo feena nay

My little boy told your little boy

Get your head on my-o

My little girl told your little boy

We gonna get your chicken wire

Talking bout hey now (hey now)

Hey now (hey now)

Iko iko, iko iko unday

Jockomo feeno ah na nay

Jockomo feena nay

We going down to Bedford town

Iko iko unday

We gonna dance

Bout to mess around

Jockomo feena nay

Watch all what you tell them to

Iko iko unday

Cause we ain't do what you tell us to

Now you can jockomo feena nay

Talking bout hey now (hey now)

Hey now (hey now)

Iko iko, iko iko unday

Jockomo feeno ah na nay

Jockomo feena nay

Jockomo feena nay

What I say, unday

Jockomo feena nay

What I say, unday...

Iko iko unday

Jockomo feena nay

Iko iko unday

Jockomo feena nay...

More lyrics: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/d/dr_john/#share

What the Words to Iko Iko Really Mean

Linguists and historians have proposed a variety of origins for the seemingly nonsensical chorus, suggesting that the words may come from a melange of cultures.

According to linguist Geoffrey D. Kimball, the lyrics of the song are derived in part from Mobilian Jargon, an extinct Native American trade language consisting mostly of Choctaw and Chickasaw words and once used by Southeastern Indians, African Americans, and European settlers and their descendants in the Gulf Coast Region. In Mobilian Jargon, Dokuma fehna (interpreted as "jockomo feeno") was a commonly used phrase, meaning 'very good.'

In a 2009 Offbeat Magazine article, however, the Ghanaian social linguist Dr. Evershed Amuzu said the chorus was "definitely West African," reflecting West African tonal patterns. The article also notes that the phrase ayeko -- often doubled as ayeko, ayeko -- is a popular chant meaning 'well done, or congratulations' among the Akan and Ewe people in modern-day Togo, Ghana, and Benin. Both groups were heavily traded during the slave trade, often to Haiti, which served as a way station for Louisiana-Ewes in particular are credited with bringing West African cultural influences like Voudou rites from West Africa to Haiti and on to New Orleans.

Musicologist Ned Sublette has backed the idea that the chorus might have roots in Haitian slave culture, considering that the rhythms of Mardis Gras Indians are nearly indistinguishable from the Haitian Kata rhythm. Yaquimo, he has also noted, was a common name among Taino people, who inhabited Haiti in the early years of the slave trade

In a 1991 lecture to the New Orleans Social Science History Association, Dr. Sybil Kein proposed the following translation from Yoruba and Creole:

Code language! God is watching Jacouman causes it; we will be emancipated Jacouman urges it; we will wait.

Mardi Gras Indian

Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras Indian

Mama Roux

is a song with an Indian reference in a 1968 single by Dr. John ( Mac Rebennack) and later on his first Atco album, called "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya." The line, "She was the Queen of the Little Red White & Blue," clearly alludes to the Little Red White and Blue Tribe.

Mardi Gras Indian

Mardi Gras Indian
Mardi Gras Indian

The recordings of Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias

are the first Indian recordings by Mardi Gras Indians to have the greatest impact. The Wild Magnolias' first recording, produced in a 1970 session by Quint Davis, was a 45 rpm release of "Handa Wanda Pts 1&2."

Spotlight on the Wild Magnolias

Mardi Gras Indian Songs

"Jockamo," Sugar Boy Crawford & the Cane Cutters

"Handa Wanda Pt 1," Wild Magnolias

"Big Chief Got a Golden Crown," Wild Tchoupitoulas

"My Gang Don't Bow Down," Flaming Arrows

"Yella Pocahontas," Champion Jack Dupree

"New Suit," Wild Magnolias

"My Indian Red," Dr. John

"Second Line Pt.1," Bill Sinigal & the Skyliners

"Big Chief," Professor Longhair

"Iko Iko," the Dixie Cups

Mardi Gras Indians on Amazon

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    • LoriBeninger profile image

      LoriBeninger 4 years ago

      I have never heard of this before - fascinating. Thank you.

    • BlueTrane profile image

      BlueTrane 5 years ago

      New Orleans and Mardi Gras are on my bucket list! Great lens...moved my visit higher up the list!

    • BlueTrane profile image

      BlueTrane 5 years ago

      New Orleans and Mardi Gras are on my bucket list! Great lens...moved my visit higher up the list!

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 5 years ago from So Cal

      I have often wondered about the Mardi Gras tradition and the people who participate in the parade and festivities. I found this to be very interesting and entertaining.