Mardi Gras Indians Tout Generations-Old Traditions

Feb 21, 2012
Originally published on February 21, 2012 7:01 pm

Today is Mardi Gras, and people all over the world are celebrating with decadent meals, carnivals and parades.

And New Orleans is at the heart of the party. Every year, millions of people crowd the streets of the Big Easy for the event. But in the communities away from the madness and merriment of Bourbon Street, self-described tribes of Mardi Gras Indians have been celebrating with their own unique traditions for generations. The groups' importance to the local black community was strengthened during the decades when African-Americans were excluded from the city's official Mardi Gras celebrations.

The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich history that dates back to slavery. Native Americans often helped escaped slaves navigate their way to freedom and sometimes even took the slaves into their own communities.

The outfits of the Mardi Gras Indian groups, who call themselves "tribes," are inspired by Native American ceremonial regalia. Members call these costumes "suits," and it can take up to a year to create the intricate designs out of thousands of sequins, beads and pounds of feathers.

These days, the "tribes" still draw members from black neighborhoods in and around New Orleans, and they parade through the streets of their own respective neighborhoods for Mardi Gras: Singing, playing the drums and staging mock battles in which the "tribes" try to outdo each other with their performances.

In the past, Mardi Gras Indians have had conflict with the New Orleans Police Department which, the tribes say, does not understand their traditions. However, the police and the tribes were recently able to reach an agreement that they hope will let the good times roll for another year.

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It is Mardi Gras and people all over the world are celebrating Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. It's traditionally a day of feasting, parties and parades on the last day before the solemn season of Lent.

And while I know there are other claimants to the throne, I think we can all agree that the capital of Mardi Gras in the United States is New Orleans. Every year, millions of tourists flock to the Big Easy for that city's legendary festivities and, for generations, self-described Mardi Gras Indians have carried on their own unique tradition as part of those festivities.

Many of these groups are often called tribes. They're from black neighborhoods in and around the city and they're famous for their elaborate costumes and a history that dates back to slavery.

Despite that tradition, though, some Mardi Gras Indians felt their future was threatened by tension with the New Orleans Police Department. But this year, they were able to come to an understanding with the city's police that they hope will keep the party going.

We wanted to know more about all of this, including the history of the Mardi Gras Indian, so we've called upon Clarence Big Chief Dalcour. He is the founder and chief of the Creole Osceola Mardi Gras Indians.

Welcome, Chief. Thank you so much for joining us.

CLARENCE DALCOUR: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the Mardi Gras Indians and tell us about your group.

DALCOUR: Well, globally, it started middle 1800s and it started because we wasn't allowed to participate in the Mardi Gras, so we - when we decided that we can participate in it, we say we would pay tribute to the Native Americans because when we ran away as the slaves that's who took us in.

The history go back, I think, with some universities here back into the 1700s, but my studies go back into the 1800s.

MARTIN: How long have you been a Mardi Gras Indian?

DALCOUR: I've been a Mardi Gras Indian, I think, in heart, since I was born, but my tribe - I come from a tribe called the Yellow Pocahontas, and I started my own tribe and I've been an Indian probably about 42 years.

MARTIN: Forty-two years.

DALCOUR: Forty-two years.

MARTIN: How do you get to start your own tribe?

DALCOUR: Well, you need the blessings of a chief that you're coming from. I was kind of different in the Yellow Pocahontas. My suit was different and having my suit different, I just didn't fit in the way I thought I should have, so I started my own group and I took the name Osceola because Osceola was a chief of the Seminoles who married a slave woman.

My designer has been a designer since day one, Albert Brown, and a close friend of mine and he had designed me and some - a lot of Indians themselves would draw and design theirself. I couldn't draw, but I knew what I had in my mind, so me and him would always just sit down and...

MARTIN: And collaborate, huh?


MARTIN: Well, how long does one of your costumes or your regalia take to make for a typical year? How long does it take to put all that together?

DALCOUR: Well, we don't really call them costumes.

MARTIN: What do you call them?

DALCOUR: We call them suits.

MARTIN: Suits. Yes, sir. OK. Your suit. How long does it take to put together one of your suits?

DALCOUR: I can put a suit together in 11 months.

MARTIN: So you pretty much start as soon as one Mardi Gras is over? You...


MARTIN: So with all that tradition, I was surprised to find - or to hear - that there was some tension with the police department. What was that about?

DALCOUR: Well, we grew up with tension with the police department, but it's always been a misunderstanding and we found that you have policemans that was born and raised here and they know what we all about. But, sometimes, you got certain individual policemans that might not understand what we're about and that's the problems that we have, you know.

MARTIN: What do you mean? They thought, because you were dressed up, that you were up to no good?

DALCOUR: Well, they just - I guess they was the cowboys and we was the Indians.

MARTIN: So they wanted you to - what? Have a curfew and...


MARTIN: And have a 6:00 P.M. curfew and what else?

DALCOUR: Right. Well, it was hard for our kids, through generations to understand that we can see the policemans on horseback and cars go through at night, at 12 o'clock, with bullhorns, saying Mardi Gras is over with. So, you know, we have to walk distances to get back to our areas and police would say, Mardi Gras is over. Get off the street. Get off the street. Get off. Get off the street. Mardi Gras is over and, you know...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Just so I understand, you mean that, in other parts of the city, Mardi Gras went on 'til midnight, but what you're saying is that, in your neighborhoods, they wanted it to be...


MARTIN: ...over at six?

DALCOUR: Exactly.

MARTIN: So that - you can see where - yeah. You can see where that would be confusing.

DALCOUR: It was confusing.

MARTIN: Well, what happened then? I understand that you were - what happened that you feel you're making some progress here? Did you have a meeting? You had a sit-down with the police?

DALCOUR: Well, yeah. We had a meeting with the commanders in the police department, which was very understanding. They were very understanding and we came to certain agreements about the rules.

We don't parade on Mardi Gras. We walk. As a Mardi Gras Indian, we don't know where we're going on Mardi Gras. You know, we leave that house. We're going out there and we're trying to hunt for other tribes and play with them. We masquerading for Mardi Gras.

MARTIN: So do you feel confident you're going to get someplace, that this Mardi Gras will go off without a hitch?

DALCOUR: We feel that way. Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, that leads me to what you're going to be wearing this year.

DALCOUR: That's the secret now. I can't tell you.

MARTIN: Well, you can give me a little hint.

DALCOUR: OK. It'll be a big crown that weighs about 65 pounds and it's kind of hard to put it on your head to go to certain places, but the feeling that you have in your heart lets you go that way.

MARTIN: A crown. So we got that far. What else?

DALCOUR: I didn't tell you much.

MARTIN: Do we have any - we got some beads, though, right?

DALCOUR: Oh, yeah. I'll sew about 160,000 beads and 160,000 sequins.

MARTIN: On your suit? Just yours?

DALCOUR: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, what color might those beads be?

DALCOUR: Can't tell you that.


MARTIN: So close.

DALCOUR: Can't tell you that.

MARTIN: Well, when...

DALCOUR: You're trying, aren't you?

MARTIN: ...Mardi Gras is over, what image will I have in my mind?

DALCOUR: All Mardi Gras Indians tries to put something relative that's in their mind. It might be some Native American symbol, some Native American scene. I've done, in the past, white tigers, wolves, game cocks, things like that.


MARTIN: I'm not going to get any further, am I?

DALCOUR: You're trying. It's OK, though.

MARTIN: You got to give me points for trying.

DALCOUR: I got to give you points for trying.

MARTIN: All right. Well, I guess I'll just have to wait 'til the Mardi Gras' over.


MARTIN: All right. Clarence Dalcour is the founder and big chief of the Creole Osceola Mardi Gras Indian tribe and he was kind enough to join us from New Orleans.

Big Chief, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DALCOUR: It's been my pleasure.

MARTIN: And we can't have a Mardi Gras celebration without some music, can we? So we're going to leave you with the Dixie Cups' version of "Iko-Iko." It tells the story of the traditional confrontation that takes place when the parades of two Mardi Gras Indian tribes meet.


THE DIXIE CUPS: (Singing) Look at my king all dressed in red. I-ko, I-ko, un-day. I bet you five dollars he'll kill you dead.

MARTIN: Up next, family, friends and fans flocked to Newark, New Jersey this weekend for the funeral of pop superstar, Whitney Houston. Producer and mentor Clive Davis was one of the many speakers who gave moving tributes about Houston's life.

CLIVE DAVIS: When she broke that all-time record of seven consecutive number ones, we just felt utter disbelief.

MARTIN: But the music diva struggles with drug addiction, even after she became a parent, struck a chord with our moms and they will talk about it just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: Today, he is a professor, writer and director, but when he was 15, all Jamal Joseph wanted was to be a Black Panther.

JAMAL JOSEPH: Choose me, brother. I kill a white dude right now. The whole meeting gets quiet and I was like, oh, he's going to give me a big gun, like with the Panther logo on the bottom and he hands me a stack of books.

MARTIN: Jamal Joseph was the panther baby. It's our latest Black History Month memoir and it's next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.