"Mardi Gras Indian" in Jackson Square. Photo from Pinterest.

Adopt vs Co-opt

Right after the March issue that features Dancing Man 504 (Darryl Young) on the cover hit the street, we received a letter from the chief of a local Mardi Gras Indian tribe. He was upset about Dancing Man’s “co-opting” Mardi Gras Indian culture.

I kind of understand his resentment, but I have to say that I think Darryl’s joy in dancing, and getting others to do the same, and his efforts to give back to the community, isn’t necessarily co-opting the Mardi Gras Indian and second line traditions. All he is doing is bringing more attention to our traditions, not stealing them or trying to tell anyone that what he does is the same as a Mardi Gras Indian.

In his letter the chief pointed out, rightly, that the many social aid and pleasure clubs were started as benevolent societies whose purpose was to help to take care of their immediate community’s needs, like, for example, funeral expenses and other expenses. He perceived Mr. Young as a “culture vulture” who was stealing our traditions—just like many others who are making “millions of it.”

I don’t see Darryl Young as a culture vulture.

I think that we need to all understand that those vultures also include people like the guys who stand around the Quarter in Mardi Gras Indian dress and charge people for taking a photo with them? How about the convention companies and meeting planners who arrange “second line parades” with bunches of tourists walking down the street waving their hankies in the air, and led by a local brass band? Or what about the Mardi Gras Indians who perform the traditional chants and perform on stage as a band? Or if you really want to get picky, how about how our Mardi Gras traditions of parading and costuming that have been promoted to the world for the benefit of the city’s economy–filling hotel rooms and restaurants? Couldn’t that also be considered “co-opting” the culture?

Nothing is so cut and dried. I see that our culture and traditions can and will be co-opted for money, and that’s a shame, but it’s not ever going to change. Once people see the opportunity to have fun, dance, celebrate, eat and party—-and especially to make a buck—using New Orleans cultural traditions as a base, it’s just going to happen.

I may have mentioned this before, but the Bike Easy group started using the term “Bike Second Line” to get people to participate in their programs. I actually was a bit offended by them using that term. Once I met the Bike Easy organizer, it occurred to me that we should be flattered that our traditions have been “adopted,” not “co-opted.” There’s a difference. We shouldn’t be offended; traditions will be absorbed and changed as time goes by, but it is up to the culture creators and bearers to continue to make sure that they educate the adopters on the source of the tradition and to make sure that they remain strong and pure within their own milieu; to educate others on the tradition’s roots; and of course, to pass on their purity to younger generations.

We can’t be afraid of change. Our culture bearers have to use it to their benefit to keep the traditions alive and well. It can be done.

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  • redwriter

    I would be interested to hear what exactly Dancing Man does that co-opts the Indian culture. Dancing was not invented by the Indians. As much as I love their culture, I just don’t see the connection.

  • Morgan Randall

    While I am inclined to agree with the opinions of this piece, I’m interested to read letter in question as well. Has it been published somewhere on offbeat.com in its entirety, and if so, why isn’t it linked in this post?

  • Hugh T

    Jan, your response ignores an important but seemingly obvious distinction between Mardi Gras Indian culture and the more general New Orleans parade traditions. The second line tradition is essentially an invitation to participate. Isn’t the whole point an invitation to step off the sidewalk and join in? Mardi Gras Indian tribes on the other hand are not open clubs. Quite the opposite they have been historically been somewhat secretive, even within their own communities, and thus fit into the age-old tradition of masking that lives on in New Orleans. I think the fact that the culture remained insular amongst the rest of New Orleans Mardi Gras culture over the years is the reason they still command a reverence today– after no much else has been exported to the world as some sort of cliché.
    It is not for me to say whether Mr. Young is improperly co-opting the culture but I think your response is a bit lazy. It seems to be saying that so much else has been co-opted and bastardized so why not this too.