Story and photo by Michael P. Smith
The culture of New Orleans has always been characterized by the mixing and absorption of elements from many cultures. Most commonly acknowledged sources are the French, Spanish, African, Irish, Italian, and German. Sometimes, unexpected elements surface, such as the influence many scholars attribute to Mexican military bands whose instruments contributed to the development of jazz. One of the most unusual stories of all is the connection between the American West and our own Southern culture.
In 1884-85 New Orleans hosted the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition — an event of international scope that brought culture and industry from many parts of the world to a feverish pitch of competition, borrowing, cross-fertilization, and synthesis. The Exposition, which lasted from December, 1884 until June, 1885, provided a lavish international festival atmosphere.
The Exposition was a very sophisticated trade exhibit with numerous international displays and interesting entertainments, including a large, racially integrated brass band that also played at various social clubs throughout the city. Many of the exhibits in the Exposition recognized the benefits of cultural diversity. There were separate exhibits for women and black Americans and frequent appearances of American Plains Indians, Mayan Indians, and other indigenous peoples, all in native costume. The Nevada Territory Exhibit also presented a respectful display of the art and culture of the American Plains Indians.
The Exposition, while it greatly enriched cultural interaction in the city, had its primary appeal in the literate community. Though heavily attended by blacks, the fair probably was visited more often by the established society, many of whom must have used the fair as an ongoing social event-much like New Orleanians utilized their 1984 World’s Fair. The opening ceremonies of the Cotton Exposition set the exclusive tone featuring a Mardi Gras pageant presided over by Rex, King of Carnival — the figurehead of the establishment.
The Wild West Comes South
Of greater accessibility, and perhaps greater influence on the average New Orleanian – especially the less literate working classes and those who were not part of the predominant American society – was the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The Wild West Show wintered in New Orleans in 1884-85 and performed regularly, over a four-month period, before large crowds in a popular multi-ethnic recreation area known as Oakland Park and Riding Stables, a cheap trolley ride and short walk from the foot of Canal Street. This show was controversial and spectacular, and attended repeatedly by minority, working-class people.
A grand parade publicizing the opening of the Wild West Show in New Orleans on December 22, 1884, left Oakland Park (the present site of the New Orleans Country Club) at about 10 a.m., marched up Canal Street to St. Charles, Washington, Magazine, Calliope, Camp, Canal, Rampart, Esplanade, Royal, Canal, and then back to Oakland Park. A reporter for The Daily Picayune, describing the opening ceremonies, referred to “an onslaught of a whole band of whooping red devils … The Indians wore their semi-civilized garb, were gorgeous in their native war paint and spoke their own guttural language … and they went through the weird dances of their race.” The impact of this magnificent street theater, including “costumed and armed Plains warriors, some of them perhaps recent victors over Custer, striding proudly through the streets of New Orleans,” obviously left a lasting impression on blacks and other minority ethnic groups in the city.
Although news coverage of the Wild West Show was sparse compared to coverage of the Cotton Exposition, The Daily Picayune judged the show “as interesting as anything to be seen at the Exposition,” and regularly noted increasing attendance. Of the two extravaganzas, the Wild West show was “the people’s choice.” By March 1885 The Daily Picayune was reporting the show as “such a show of novelties and sensations as can be seen nowhere else in the world.” In spite of inclement weather throughout that spring, The Daily Picayune made numerous references to “large crowds” at the show.
Buffalo Bill portrayed and marketed the myth of white supremacy and social Darwinism. The pageant depicted the Anglo-Saxon “manifest destiny” and graphically represented the conquest of the Plains Indians already a mythic people among blacks. One Wild West program referred to the white/Indian conflict as part of America’s pursuit of “the Anglo Saxon’s commercial necessities” and summed up with the definitive statement: ‘’’the inevitable law of survival of the fittest’ had to determine who would control ‘nature’s cornucopia.’” “Fittest,” of course, meant superior guns and numbers. In sum, the Wild West Show promoted the idea that white America was divinely commissioned to be its “brother’s keeper.”
Black cowboys worked in all of the Wild West shows that toured during that era, and must have developed lasting friendships with the Plains Indians and other ethnic groups in the shows. According to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, there was at least one black cowboy and a large number of black cowhands in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. There were also five major ethnic groups that traveled and worked together in the show — including Chinese, Mexicans, blacks, whites, and Indians. At times the international cast included “Russian cossacks, Turkish bedouins, Argentine gauchos, Mexican vaqueros, and French Chasseurs …. In later years when the Wild West dramatized historical events they hired Cubans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Chinese.”
Despite the relative exclusiveness of the Cotton Exposition and despite any manifest destiny and white supremacy messages imbedded in the Wild West Show, both were models of cultural diversity and pan-ethnic industry. The actual working and living environments of the Wild West Show, in particular, resembled the permeability of early French colonial society in New Orleans, and might well have functioned in much the same way.
Rooting for the Victim
African Americans were surely in sympathetic contact with the Plains Indians in New Orleans during all those months. Given the sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority conveyed in the show, the explicit supremacy message carried in the show program, and worsening racial conditions in New Orleans at that time, blacks were given ample reason to reconsider their own circumstances and future.
The great majority of common folk in New Orleans would have condemned the genocide portrayed and would have ridiculed the white supremacy notion carried by the show. Blacks who attended the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show would have sympathized with the Indians rather than with Buffalo Bill, and would have departed the show identifying strongly with the Indians’ struggle.
Knowing well the vernacular, multicultural character of the modern city, and having attended “Cowboy and Indian” movies in black neighborhoods myself — where the attending public heartily supports the Indians rather than the cowboys — I would suspect that the show focused attention on the plight of blacks and Indians together as outcast peoples threatened by a common enemy: white chauvinism and America’s “Christian” interest in reshaping the world in the mold of Anglo-American civilization.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1885 was extraordinary. On the streets were large numbers of international visitors connected with the Exposition, a number of Central American Indian groups from Mexico, and some fifty to sixty Plains Indians from the Wild West Show, including four chiefs, all of whom were likely on the streets of the city, at some point, in their native ceremonial dress.
Such an unusual celebration of community, creative imagination, and international camaraderie — all within the revolutionary “devil may care,” “in your face,” “anything can happen” context of the New Orleans Mardi Gras — must have been both an inspiring occasion for the black leaders, and a nightmarish vision for the white supremacists.
According to the oral tradition of some present-day Mardi Gras Indian gangs, a number of Afro-New Orleanians masked as Indians on that occasion. We will never know the exact social dynamics involved, but Mardi Gras presented a wonderful opportunity to celebrate multiculturalism and the ancient friendship between blacks and Indians. “Masking Indian” in large tribal formations soon became a recognizable part of Mardi Gras.
Ironically, the designation Mardi Gras Indian has become a mask in itself. That superficial identification made in the last century now spurs widespread confusion about just who or what the Mardi Gras Indians are. Today that label is used in the outside community and in the popular press with little understanding, eclipsing the identity of one of America’s most important cultural heritages -a traditional African American heritage, little changed in New Orleans over the past 250 or more years, which continues all year around and is only incidentally connected with Mardi Gras or American Indians.
These societies are more properly described, perhaps, as the Maroons of Urban New Orleans. Maroons were among the first Americans to resist colonial domination, striving for independence, forging new cultures and identities, and developing soliderity out of diversity. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue, maroons helped to launch the Haitian Revolution, which gave birth to one of the first independent republics in the Americas in 1804. The music, dance, verbal arts, and spiritual traditions of contemporary Maroon peoples remain the carriers of a rich heritage that came to New Orleans initially during the French and Spanish colonial period, and descends in large part from the early Afro-Creole population of the city. Now long submerged in the inner city, their identity obscured by the processes of racism and simplistic definition by outsiders, the Mardi Gras Indians pursue cultural traditions rooted in what they know only as a mysterious past, their own history being little known beyond its vibrant oral tradition.
Despite being some 15 to 20 generations removed from its original source in Africa, and despite severe oppression, this culture serves to instill a deep-seated ethnic pride in the black community, and continues to maintain individual spirits against the demoralizing effects of modern urbanization and ghettoization.
Everything going on in the city in 1885 would have sensitized the community to such an exhibition and made this sort of cross-cultural activity highly visible and more likely to be commented upon and remembered. In former times, underclass groups, or Afro-Indian tribal groups, could have marched the back streets of the city going to or coming from Congo Square or other meeting places — without being noted in the historical record. Locals would have considered these goings on to be either too mundane or too déclassé to write about unless it led to some disturbance.
The commonly accepted history of present-day Mardi Gras Indian gangs begins at just about that time. The first such gang usually considered to be in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition was named the “Creole Wild West” presumably as a carnivalesque reference to the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. This gang was founded sometime around 1885 by Becate Batiste, a Seventh Ward Creole of African-American, French, and Choctaw heritage.
Variance of Style
Among the several styles of African American Indian Carnival masking in New Orleans, one source of the Amerindian motif thus seems clear. But there is much more to the Mardi Gras Indians than groups that adopted a Plains Indians dress style. Different carnivalesque groups dressed in different ways. Some dressed like the maskers and dancers during the Carnival period in 1781, who were banned because of their “exhibitions against the public quietness.” Some dressed like revelers during Carnival in 1823: “For a crown he has a series of oblong, giltpaper boxes on his head, tapering upwards, like a pyramid.” Other gangs followed in the path of “Native American militia” described in accounts from 1836. There were different styles for different periods, but the cultural pattern and substance remained the same.
The abstract, sculptural style of dress is more typical of “downtown” Indians. “Uptown” gangs follow the American Indian style of dress, featuring elaborate beaded, pictorial scenes — now usually “Cowboy and Indian” visions of the American West. This uptown/downtown difference can be found in tribal music styles and organization, as well as in costume design, sewing styles, and materials used. These variations continue today -though the uptown/downtown distinction is becoming increasingly “muddied” at this point.
It is likely that the source of these differences can be found in the origins of the two communities. In general the downtown Creole community descended largely from the Senegambian peoples who came to New Orleans during the French and Spanish colonial periods. The uptown black community, on the other hand, came to New Orleans in three great waves: from the Caribbean islands (from Haiti via Cuba, largely in 1809), from the “Old South” plantations on the eastern seaboard during the” Americanization” period (English-speaking slaves), and from the Louisiana plantations after the Civil War (mainly Creole-speaking slaves). .
With respect to the groups arriving from the Caribbean, dress styles in New Orleans would certainly have been influenced by the “roots” and “fancy dress” concepts carried here from the West Indies by members of Jonkonnu, Rara, and other groups.
As for the American Plains Indians connection, it should also be considered that shortly after the Civil War hundreds of freed slaves had been induced to join the U.S. Ninth Cavalry Regiment (the “Buffalo Soldiers”) and were shipped West to fight the Plains Indians. Some of these soldiers must have returned to New Orleans in later years as cowboys and roustabouts in the employment of numerous Wild West shows and carnivals. Their Army experience would have hardened their perceptions of what might be expected from “American” rule. They might well have concluded that only through multicultural alliances would they have any hope for freedom. Blacks working in the Wild West shows became friends with the Plains Indians and both must have socialized with and influenced the underclass populations of each community visited by the traveling shows.
A large number of traveling Wild West shows visited the· city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among others were a Mexican Wild West show at the Fair Grounds, The Hagenback Wallace Creole Wild West Show, the 101 Travelling Wild West Show from the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, and an African Wild West Show, which played to large audiences in the Gentilly area around the turn of the century.
The 101 Wild West Show, like many of these shows, had a full complement of black cowboys, and various admixtures of blacks, whites, Seminole Indians and Cherokee Indians. There was also a Mardi Gras Indian gang, dating from the same period, named the “101 Wild West” gang, giving additional substance to the idea that traveling carnival shows influenced the expression of African American culture in New Orleans.
Surely the effects of industrial trade shows, small carnivals, itinerant tent shows, minstrel and vaudeville shows, and various Wild West shows on society and politics in New Orleans during this period were much greater and more complex than historians have recognized to date.
It was during this period, the last two decades of the 19th century, and in just these sorts of vibrant, multicultural environments that information was communicated into the black community about what really happened at Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, and exactly what Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Black Hawk were fighting about … not as reported in the establishment press, but what was being said among common working-class peoples in the environments of the various traveling shows. These opinions, of course, would have been very different from those in the established Anglo-American society. Many of these folk oriented entertainments traveled internationally and served as vehicles for diverse cultural communications between various societies — much like musicians employed in the shipping trades who cross-fertilized the music worlds of the great port cities. It was information and ideas gained through national and international travel that informed the popular movement against the elitist, Anglo-American hegemony … and for the wide-open, heterogeneous, multicultural Creole society in New Orleans, which, at this point, was giving birth to music later known as jazz.
Further division between the “high” and “low” communities was being caused by the implications of Custer’s “last stand,” which had occurred just a few years before (1876). It could be said that the Americans were not invincible, that the blacks and Indians, if they combined their forces, might be an unbeatable combination. It was a time of great fear and polarization in America.
New Orleans by the 1890s was becoming harshly segregated on the basis of a pathological color line dictated by Anglo-Protestant Americans … one drop of African blood determined one’s identification as black. This attitude, reinforced by law in 1893, produced an almost intolerable situation for a large part of the population of New Orleans which was either reduced to passing as white or to accepting the loss of basic human rights.
Just a few short years after the close of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and the Cotton Exposition the lid clamped tight on black society. Jim Crow laws banned blacks from public parks, and enforced the strictest segregation in all public facilities. Vernacular black culture (especially the “savage” and “dangerous” sort most repugnant to radical whites such as that of the Mardi Gras Indians) retreated deep into the neighborhoods and back streets of the city. It would not be seen or reported again, practically speaking, for almost another century. This is not to say that it did not continue as a living culture serving the interior community, but it is to say that it was denied recognition and support by the city of its birth.
Excerpted from The Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans by Michael P. Smith, published by Pelican Publishing Corporation in 1993. Smith was a freelance photographer whose works appeared in Newsweek and National Geographic. The annual humanities photography award bestowed by the LEH is named in honor of Smith.