“There is never a dull moment
in the street
where the Zulus
& the Indians
& the Baby Dolls
live & play.
in the streets
where every night
is Saturday night…”
Gumbo Ya-Ya (1946)
Urban American culture begins and ends in the street, where wave after wave of ethnic immigrants has crested, broken, and, largely, dispersed into the vast suburban landscape of metro America.
Life in the streets of the cities of America is now by and large a thing of the past. Except for New York City, Chicago, Miami and New Orleans, say, the vitality of street life, the teeming masses of pedestrian citizens, the portable marketplace, the corner stores crammed with customers inside and loiterers lined up outside, the bars and pool rooms and record stores and barber shops where people met and gathered for their fun and necessities all of this is gone from the lives of all but the most recent immigrants and the most destitute sectors of the African-American community, where good times in the face of impending doom have been replaced by the doom itself, and fear stalks the streets wearing a gun.
Everywhere else the streets have been abandoned and boarded up, or rolled up and moved to the suburban dreamland where life is contained in the home and moves from workplace to shopping mall to school and back in tightly locked automobiles.
But it is the culture of the street that has made America great, and where life remains in the streets there will always be great music, great poetry, great painting, great art of all sorts, at once reflecting and feeding back the brilliance and energy of the people in the streets.
In the streets our cultural heritage will live and grow, our music will swing with vigor and intelligence, our imagery will be ripe with oranges, hot tamales, cans of pop, yellow trousers, a sea of faces, legs and shoulders – brimming with humanity and pulsing to the many vigorous heartbeats of our citizenry.
Take the streets of New Orleans, where life exists in almost boundless measure even today, and where modern life is incredibly rooted in the rich soil of the city’s long and continuous cultural history.
is the most receptive place in the world
to the artist,
this music spirit
that flies around in the air
all the time,
to be reborn
-Bahamian band leader Exuma
On the same streets where jazz emerged out of the brass bands by way of Congo Square, where rhythm & blues merged the sound of the piano professors with the emotionalism of the spiritualist churches, where Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair once
walked home from the gig every night – these streets today carry their music in the very air, and what is most incredible is the continuing presence of the original, the prototypical music of the street in its original form – the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.
It’s Mardi Gras Day, early in the afternoon, and five tribes of Wild Indians are heading into a big showdown at the intersection of Washington & Derbigny, just above the Magnolia Projects in uptown New Orleans.
The Wild Magnolias, led by Big Chief Bo Dollis, and the Golden Eagles, with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, banded together with their second line, have been dancing and chanting all the way up Washington from Dryades. The Golden Stars and the Young Sons of Geronimo, backed up by a huge gang of supporters from their own neighborhood, are prancing down Washington from the opposite direction. And the Black Eagles, with twenty or thirty of their own pals behind them, are heading up Derbigny, hell-bent for a showdown.
All around them, in every direction, packing the streets from sidewalk to sidewalk, hundreds of neighborhood citizens mill about, trying to get a clear shot at the action, “00h, them Indians is pretty today,” people who can see the brilliantly costumed warriors bubble to their friends.
Before the final push got underway, Bo Dollis had paused at the corner of Washington and Magnolia to pull his forces together. His Spy Boy had raced ahead, searching for traces
of other tribes on their turf, and they came running back with shouts of “Golden Stars! Geronimos! Headin’ down Washington!”
The Flag Boy of the Wild Magnolias adjusted his magnificent war bonnet and lifted high the huge, hand-beaded and brightly feathered standard of his tribe, ready to lead his gang into battle.
Other tribal officials, all wearing their indescribably beautiful hand-sewn Indian costumes – the Council Chief, Second Chief, the Trial Chief, the Wild Man – stationed themselves along the line of march, about twenty feet apart and separated by members of the Wild Magnolias second line with their beat-up old drums, cowbells, tambourines, whistles, wine bottles and sticks ready to pound out the hundred-year-old beat of the street.
The trusted inner-circle members of the second line – that mass of non-costumed followers who march behind the Wild Indians in the streets, wielding their raggedy rhythm instruments and shouting back the appropriate responses to the wild calls and boasts of their Big Chiefs – were getting their marching orders now, and the spectators on the sidewalks started moving into position to witness the big push through stopped traffic across Claiborne (a major thoroughfare) and up to Derbigny, where all five tribes would meet up at last.
Now the Wild Magnolias and Golden Eagles resume their forward motion, their cries and shouts growing louder and stronger by the minute. “Let ’em come, let ’em come,” a Flag Boy hollers impatiently, and as the second line hammers out a steady chorus of “Two Way Pak E Way” (“Tuez bas qu’ ou est,” or “Kill anyone who gets in the way”), Big Chief Bo Dollis begins to carry on for real:
“What I say now?”
Two Way Pak E Way
“Oh y’all, is you ready?”
Two Way Pak E Way
“Oh now, what I know now!”
Two Way Pak E Way
“Injuns is ready, y’ all!”
Two Way Pak E Way
“Hey people, is ya ready?”
Hey Way Pak E Way
“Let’s all have fun now!”
Hey Way Pak E Way
“Wild Magnolias comin’!”
Hey Way Pak E Way
“Let’s do what we wanna!”
Hey Way Pak E Way
Headed across busy Claiborne Avenue now, stopped motorists gawk through their car windows, point and stare as the Mardi Gras Indians dance through the intersection in full tribal regalia, pushed on by the surging second-liners and their relentless beat. Spy Boys and Flag Boys gesture fiercely, brazenly stopping traffic to let the Big Chiefs and their legions through.
Then it’s straight ahead up Washington, the Big Chiefs dancing and hollering like Wild Indians, the second liners strutting and shouting that endless Hey Pak E Way, the Flag Boys running ahead crying “Make way for the Wild Magnolia! Make no houm bah! Make cha-wah! Wild Magnolia make kill-o-way!”
“They used to carry hatchets,
razor sharp, and real shotguns. Now
it’s all changed. They fight
with their costumes.
We used to fight
with knives and guns.
Now we compete
by the beauty of our costumes.”
-Tuddy Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas
The Mardi Gras Indians – also called Wild Indians, or Black Indians – have been enacting their frenzied street rituals in the funkiest, neediest, most ancient districts of New Orleans since the late 1870s.
Today’s active Wild Indian tribes – Yellow Pocahontas, Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West, Golden Arrows, White Eagles, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Golden Eagles, Ninth Ward Warriors, Black Eagles, Golden Stars, Yellow Jackets, Young Sons of Geronimo, Yellow Cloud Hunters, and several others – carry on the tradition of black men masking in elaborate costumes on Mardi Gras to honor the memory and the spirits of the native peoples (Choctaws, Cherokees, Natchez, Seminoles) who greeted their ancestors with respect and helped inspire their ultimately successful resistance to the slave-masters.
The Wild Indian chants, dances, costumes and street activities at the Mardi Gras are only the most visible manifestations of a comprehensive system of ‘secret societies’ dedicated to keeping alive the West African, Caribbean, Choctaw, and Black Creole heritage of African-Americans in New Orleans. Deeply rooted in poverty-stricken, laboring class uptown and downtown neighborhoods, these societies (or ‘tribes’) hark back to the ceremonial societies of West African village life while they continue to adapt the ancestral forms to changing realities in the new world.
“When Blacks dressed
as American Indians
they were assuming the composite identity
of a spiritual people
who fought and died
for their way of life and beliefs.
was and is
a rite or ritual
for spiritual guidance.”
-Michael P. Smith, Spirit World
The first Mardi Gras Indians appeared on the streets of the Sixth Ward downtown on Mardi Gras day ten or fifteen years after the Civil War. Their astounding presence was first noted by Elise Kirsch in her account of the Mardi Gras festivities for 1883, when she spotted a band or tribe of 60 or so men masked as Indians with turkey fathers in their hair on Robertson Street near St. Bernard Avenue – just blocks from the childhood home of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, “Inventor” of the jazz idiom.
The first known tribe was the original Creole Wild West, founded around 1880 at 1313 St. Anthony Street by Becate Batiste, a Sixth Ward Creole of African-American, French, and Choctaw heritage. The Yellow Pocahontas, headed since 1945 or so by Big Chief Allison “Tuddy” Montana (grandnephew of Big Chief Becate Batiste), followed in the late 1890s with Henri Marigny as Big Chief and a full-blooded, 7’2″ Choctaw, Eugene Honore, as Second Chief and musical arranger.
An old-time Black Indian, Vincent Trepagnier, recalls Eugene Honore as a “real Indian who came with his mama from up in the country, somewhere the other side of Baton Rouge. They lived in tents … And when they come in the city, they moved on Burgundy and Toulouse.” Another old-timer, Arthur “Creole” Williams, claims that Honore “mapped all them songs out,” establishing the form and essential content of Wild Indian music for the next hundred years.
“Everything we do in this city,
regardless of what we play,
whether they call in ‘jazz’
or ‘soul,’ or ‘gospel,’ or whatever
you know, that’s always in there,”
-Abe Sturgis, Tribal “Hawk” of The White Eagles
For the student of contemporary popular music and its African-American underpinnings, Wild Indian music provides the “missing link” which connected the West African perambulating chants, the “ring shouts” and “sankeys” of the slaves on the eastern seaboard, the brass band marches of the post-Civil War period, the piano ragtime of Missouri, the earliest Mississippi blues, and the musical remnants of European court dances brought over by the French and Spanish to the first strains of American jazz as played by King Buddy Bolden and his “ratty” New Orleans ensemble at dances, ‘outings,’ picnics and parades starting around 1894-95.
Wild Indian music – basically a new world fusion of the ritual musics used for religious ceremonies by Dahomean, Carib and Choctaw peoples with lyrics drawn from Choctaw and Black Creole sources and taken straight to the street – stuck the second-line shuffle into the traditional marches and spirituals played by the pre-jazz black bands of New Orleans at funerals (a centuries-old West African tradition) and parades before the turn of the century.
Wild Indian music brought the “Spanish tinge” – actually the Afro-Caribbean tinge into North American popular music. It moved Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden (who resided just three blocks from where the Wild Magnolias practice today) to change the shape of American music once and for all. It put the drive in the blues and the roll in the left hand of the piano professors. And following World War II, it put the rhythm in the new rhythm & blues idiom that provided the basis for rock and roll and all popular music today.
“The [Wild Indian] songs,
in addition to recounting
a Black history
few have heard
ouside the ghetto,
express masculine codes of conduct
and other social lessons
and knowledge that are
necessary to survival
in a brutal street world.”
-Michael P. Smith, Spirit World
While the musical impact of the Wild Indians has held world-wide effect, the broader cultural concerns of the Black Indians continue to be focused in the neighborhood and on the preservation and regeneration of the ancestral heritage.
“Certainly the most significant aspects of the Black Indian tradition,” photographer/journalist Michael P. Smith continues, “are the tribal organizations and friendships, which continue all year long, and the ‘practices’ on Sunday evenings during the fall and winter leading up to Mardi Gras, where the dancing, drumming and communal traditions of the tribes are continued…These meetings, which now occur in neighborhood bars, are a natural continuation of the dancing and drumming celebrations in Congo Square on Sunday afternoons and evenings during slave days.”
The Wild Indians provide a heady contrast to the gaudy decadence of the official Mardi Gras celebration on that day when they take over the streets of their neighborhoods and ‘have their fun’ all over town. But their public ritual, like the Mardi Gras spectacle enacted annually by the city’s ruling class, serves to reinforce and strengthen the cultural basis of daily life by pointing up its historical foundation, its class struggles and triumphs through the stages of its development.
For African-Americans in New Orleans, who are just beginning to gain some measure of control over the political life of their city after almost 300 years of residency, modern life is rooted in active resistance to the slaveholding class by West African slaves and freedmen acting in concert with – and genuinely inspired by – the natives of this land whose communal life and culture were all but exterminated by their common oppressor.
The dances, chants, costumes and rituals of the Mardi Gras Indians pay constant homage to the fierce fighting spirit of the Natchez and Choctaws, the rebelliousness of the West African slaves, the spirituality and creativity of both Old World and New World cultures, and the centuries-old oral tradition by means of which the historic accomplishments, trials and tribulations of the ancestors are codified and passed .in songs, stories and ceremonies from generation to generation.
“The Mardi Gras Indians
give light to the memory
of an African past,
but in a ritual fashion
that embraced the Indian
as an adopted spirit figure …
followed the procession
of rebellious slaves,
voodoo cultists, and Congo Square dancers
as a spirit figure
in the historical memory.”
-Up From The Cradle of Jazz
What is most remarkable is that in New Orleans, at Claiborne and Orleans as at Washington and LaSalle, on Mardi Gras Day and all year round the Wild Indians persist even today, when everywhere else the communal memory of the native peoples, the ex-slaves, the waves of immigrants from Europe and Latin America and Asia is being obliterated by the modern weapons of cultural genocide wielded by the owners of America – radio, television, newspapers, magazines, movies, pop music, fast food, and the rancid cornucopia of consumer products they shill for.
Even more incredibly, the Wild Indians continue to hold forth on the exact same streets into which they emerged from literal slavery in the years following the Civil War, during the last stages of native American resistance to the genocidal forces of the federal government. Their tribal lore, handed down for over 100years from one generation of ‘hawks’ (oral historians) to the next, is based in the freshest contemporary accounts of the bravery of the Indians in battle, their pride, intelligence, and deep spirituality, their relentless resistance to cultural and physical annihilation by an enemy vastly superior in numbers and weaponry.
These images survive today, vivid and alive, in the rites and rituals of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans. They flood the streets, pouring out of the neighborhood repositories of Afro-American culture. The irresistible thrust of their street-driven rhythms has penetrated and regenerated American popular music for an entire century, offering spiritual sustenance to the down-pressed citizens of several generations, and it continues today as ever – strong as a thousand heartbeats, deep as ancestral memory, powerful with the invoked spirits of the ancestors, straight and direct from the streets which gave it life and continue to sustain it.
“We’re the lndians of the Nation,
the whole wide creation.
We won’t bow down,
Down on the ground.
Oh, how I love to call
My Indian Race … “