Black Masking Mardi Gras Indians define a wide range of cultural influences.
Some Indians claim Native American ancestry because many Africans that were forcefully brought to plantations in colonial times often escaped from their captors and formed communities with the indigenous Native Americans. Indian suits often depict stories with sewn beads of Native Americans battling the United States cavalry, cowboys, or conquistadors. Sewing beads into a whole suit can take a year or more.
Others Indian gangs or tribes are more influenced by West African and Afro-Caribbean cultures and their suits can have shells, glass, and geometric patterns, while others have three-dimensional beaded animals or other sculptures protruding from the suit.
Chief Becate Batiste, a Creole who was part Choctaw, French, and African-American, is said to have founded the first Mardi Gras Indian gang, the Creole Wild West, around 1880.
Though the first written account of Indians comes from the memoir of Elise Kirsch who recalled seeing 60 Indians on Mardi Gras in 1883, others speculate that Mardi Gras Indians appeared after a performance in New Orleans of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in 1884.
Some gangs are small with two or three members while others like the Mohawk Hunters from Algiers have over a dozen members.
Members of the tribe can include the Spy Boy, Flag Boy, Gang Flag, Moss Man, Wild Man, Big Queen, Princess, Council Chief, Second Chief, and Big Chief.
Indians are said to have to started parading on the feast of St. Joseph’s in the early 1900s because it was easy to blend in with groups of Catholics celebrating in the street on St. Joseph’s Day. Then in the 1970s Indian parades began on the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day that later became known as Super Sunday.
The Indians still come out in smaller groups on March 19 on St. Joseph’s Night in different parts of the city.
Matthew Hinton is a New Orleans area freelance photographer whose work has been recognized by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Best of Photojournalism Awards in 2014 and 2016, and by numerous awards from the Press Club of New Orleans, including the Hal Ledet President's Print Photography Award, the highest honor the Press Club can bestow upon a photographer. Matthew Hinton has previously been a staff photographer at both of the daily newspapers in New Orleans. His work has appeared nationally and internationally through freelance work with the Associated Press and AFP, Agence France-Presse.