Joe Roach, "One Blood," Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance:"In America, blood is the talisman of authentic identity, but the history of the Mardi Gras Indians frustrates unitary explanations. New Orleans photographer Michael P. Smith, an acute and knowledgeable observer of cultural traditions of the African-American community, has suggested some connections between the Mardi Gras Indians and the special reverence for the Sauk Indian chief, Blackhawk, a feature of worship in local spiritual churches (Spirit World, 43, 66). Both Samuel Kinser, in his study of Gulf Coast carnival, and Smith, in his recent Mardi Gras Indians (1994), point to the 1880s as the most likely decade for the formation of the Mardi Gras Indian practices that continue today, and Smith has developed some suggestive evidence that the visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West in 1884-85, along with later visits by other shows, including the Creole Wild West Show and the African Wild West Show, influenced the Mardi Gras Indians (97-105). More than a few Mardi Gras Indians find the suggestions that Buffalo Bill's Wild West influenced their traditions deeply offensive, but fortunately there is no shortage of alternative genealogies. Smith elaborates what he sees as a number of linkages between present-day Indian gangs and the renegade bands of Afro-Amerindian Maroons who tormented the colonial authorities in Louisiana (Mardi Gras Indians, 21-25), as they did the overseer in The Octoroon (Boucicault, 8), the English governor of Suriname (Southerne, 92) and his counterpart in Jamaica (D. Scott, 102-6). Reid Mitchell, in his recent All on a Mardi Gras Day: Episodes in the History of New Orleans Carnival (1995), sums up (and gives up) by citing Hobsbawn and Ranger's Invention of Tradition (1983): "With the Mardi Gras Indians, the working class black people of New Orleans too 'invented a tradition'" (115).Such diverse claims for the origin of Mardi Gras Indians provide a crux for the construction of collective memory out of genealogies of performance. The tangle of creation narratives--the romantic reaching back to extracolonial encounters between black and red men and women, the Afro-Caribbean ties to Trinidad, Cuba, and Haiti, the links to West African dance and musical forms, the social hypothesis stressing fraternal African-American bonds in the face of oppression, the presence of a strong spirit-world subculture, and the catalyst of the Wild West Show--does not exhaust the possibilities. I believe that each story contributes its own grain of truth--the trace of a once powerful surrogation. Taken together, the stories exemplify Clifford's reformulation of a contemporary cultural politics of authenticity: "If authenticity is relational, there can be no essence except as a political, cultural invention, a local tactic." This line of thinking leads him finally to his summary of Mashpee Indian identity: "Groups negotiating their identity in contexts of domination and exchange... patch themselves together" (15, 338).
Ibid., continued:By reinvoking the metaphor of patchwork amid exchange, I do not mean to imply that there is anything haphazard about Mardi Gras Indian performance. On the contrary, the extraordinary artistry and craftsmanship of the costumes, which may take a year to build, taken together with the many-layered protocols of Sunday rehearsals, parade-day tactics and strategy, and music-dance-drama performance, make the honor of "masking Indian" a New Orleanian way of life. The victories earned in intertribal competition, their exact meanings, and their deep significance, like the solidarity won by thousands of hours gossiping at the sewing table, cannot be shared with outsiders. The tribes, brilliant apparitions on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph's Day, and Super Sunday keep the secrets of their undecidability. "Nobody ain't never gonna find the code... every Indian," as Larry Bannock says, parades in his own way." At the same time, the way in which every Indian parades does not, precisely speaking, belong to him alone, no matter how virtuosic the productions of his musical and kinesthetic imagination might be. He performs the gestures and actions, he sews the feathered and beaded costumes, and he sings the songs, all of which constitute living artifacts, spirit-world messages passed on through the medium of his performance. Occupying and transforming the streets in the "back of town," an Indian in his new suit on Mardi Gras morning is ambulant architecture, a living milieu de mémoire.
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