- Black Indians of New Orleans—"Won't Bow Down, Don't Know How"*
Since the late nineteenth century every year on Mardi Gras Day, African American groups, collectively called the Black Indian tribes of New Orleans, parade down the streets of the city's black neighborhoods in feathered and beaded costumes reminiscent of those worn by some Native American tribes, engage in artful reenactments of Native American warfare, and sing a repertoire of folk songs. Between 2011 and 2015, I conducted field and archival research on Black Indians for my documentary Heirs on performance cultures of New Orleans. As I learned from this research and film work, Black Indian performance traditions are manifestations of re-membrance of their past struggles against white oppression. They serve as a corrective to the dominant historical narrative that presents New Orleans as a legitimate heir to a white European history that largely omits the African and Native American shared heritage of resistance. Black Indians trace their heritage back to the era of slavery and with their performances they pay tribute to those Native Americans who aided enslaved Africans in escaping bondage and formed so-called maroon societies in the swamps with them. By performing this counter-memory, as defined by David Scott, Indians (the term most commonly used by the tribes) express their continuous opposition to today's racialized society and strengthen their communities' sense of self. This radical oppositional quality of Indian traditions can only be understood in the context and history of New Orleans's dominant carnival festivities, the subject of my essay. [End Page 72]
Heritage and Counter-Memory
New Orleans is a city historically divided by racialized politics, and during carnival season when everyday social interactions are heightened, this becomes particularly apparent. The Mardi Gras of large floats and magnificent balls that have shaped New Orleans's reputation as a festive town began in 1857 when a small group of white businessmen founded the exclusive carnival organization Mistick Krewe of Comus in order to elevate their social status. Their parades, organized with militaristic precision, glorified white reign and rulership. Lavishly decorated and dramatically lit by enslaved torchbearers, the so-called flambeaux, these presentations awed the public so much so that other krewes modeled on Comus sprang up, and freewheeling carnival chaos where enslaved and free workers of all ethnicities celebrated together gave way to carefully structured and strictly segregated festivities. After the Civil War, a sharp increase of whites-only krewes suggests that their celebrations served to compensate for and alleviate fears of losing political power to those whom they had previously "owned." Black Indian performance traditions emerged as a response to this crisis over racialized power and identity. The tribes began presenting on Mardi Gras when, at the end of Reconstruction, African Americans were forced into segregation and Native Americans onto reservations. By embodying iconic Native American heroism with their performances and costumes (the so-called suits) Indians celebrate their heritage of resistance.
According to Big Chief Darryl Montana, the first official tribe, The Creole Wild West, was founded in 1879 by his great-great-uncle, Becate Batiste. Montana sums up Batiste's motivation: "He [Batiste] thought the highest level of respect he could pay to the Native Americans was for us to dress on Mardi Gras as Indians" (Montana). The Yellow Pocahontas—Montana's tribe—emerged from the Creole Wild West and was led for many years by the late Chief Allison Tootie Montana (1922–2005), Becate Batiste's great-nephew and Darryl Montana's father. Batiste, says Montana, was "the offspring of a Native American and a slave" (Montana). Such unions between Native Americans and Africans were not uncommon in the region. Larry Bannock, the late Chief of the Gold Star Hunters, explained: "When we were slaves, it was the Native Americans, the Quakers, and a few others that accepted and helped us. [. . .] In the Louisiana bayou, they were people that helped us. And they intermarried" (Bannock). Chief Joseph "Monk" Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles echoes Bannock's view. Boudreaux grew up in the swamps and frequently returns for hunting.
These accounts differ markedly from those by scholars such as Michael P...