Parade formation and Protocol
The Mardi Gras Indians play various traditional roles. Many blocks ahead of the Indians are plain clothed informants keeping an eye out for any danger. The procession begins with “spyboys,” dressed in light “running suits” that allow them the freedom to move quickly in case of emergency. Next comes the “first flag,” an ornately dressed Indian carrying a token tribe flag. Closest to the “Big Chief” is the “Wildman” who usually carries a symbolic weapon. Finally, there is the “Big Chief.” The “Big Chief” decides where to go and which tribes to meet (or ignore). The entire group is followed by percussionists and revelers.
During the march, the Indians dance and sing traditional songs particular to their gang. They use hodgepodge languages loosely based on different African dialects. The “Big Chief” decides where the group will parade; the parade route is different each time. When two tribes come across each other, they either pass by or meet for a symbolic fight. Each tribe lines up and the “Big Chiefs” taunt each other about their suits and their tribes. The drum beats of the two tribes intertwine, and the face off is complete. Both tribes continue on their way.[
In the early days of the Indians, Mardi Gras was a day of both reveling and bloodshed. “Masking” and parading was a time to settle grudges. This part of Mardi Gras Indian history is immortalized in James Sugar Boy Crawford’s song, “Jock O Mo” (better known and often covered as “Iko Iko“), based on their taunting chants. However, in the late 1960s, Allison Montana, “Chief of Chiefs”, fought to end violence between the Mardi Gras Indian Tribes. He said, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.” Today, the Mardi Gras Indians are not plagued by violence; instead they base their fights over the “prettiness” of their suits.
Long ago, Mardi Gras was a violent day for many Mardi Gras Indians. It was a day often used to settle scores. The police were often unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding Mardi Gras events in the city, when the streets were crowded and everyone was masked. This kept many families away from the “parade,” and created much worry and concern for a mothers whose children wanted to join the Indians.
Today when two Mardi Gras Indian tribes pass one another, you will see a living theater of art and culture. Each tribe’s style and dress is on display in a friendly but competitive manner. They compare one another’s art and craftsmanship.
The Big Chiefs of two different tribes start with a song/chant, ceremonial dance, and threatening challenge to “Humba”. The Big Chief’s demand that the other Chief bows and pays respect. The retort is a whoop and equally impressive song and war dance with the reply, “Me no Humba, YOU Humba!”
Although there was a history of violence, many now choose to keep this celebration friendly. Each Big Chief will eventually stand back and, with a theatrical display of self-confidence, acknowledge the artistry and craftsmanship of the other chief’s suit.
Before the progression can continue, the two Big Chiefs will often comment privately to one another, “Looking good, baby, looking good!”
The good news is Mardi Gras day is no longer a day to “settle scores” among the Mardi Gras Indians. Now that the tradition and practice for the Indians to compare their tribal song, dance and dress with other tribes as they meet that day, violence is a thing of the past. The Mardi Gras Indian has invested thousands of hours and dollars in the creation of his suit, and will not run the risk of ruining it in a fight. This tradition, rich with folk art and history, is now appreciated by museums and historical societies around the world. It is a remarkable and welcome change from the past.
(Information from mardigrasneworleans.com)