A bit of background - this gets very complicated but I'll explain the best I can. I will also include some links at the end of this blog with further information for those who are interested. This is all information that was completely new to me.
Mardi Gras Indians
We first learned of the Mardi Gras Indians when we toured the Backstreet Museum. One of the major exhibits was the suits worn by the Mardi Gras Indians. Many Mardi Gras Indians explain that they are descendants of Native Americans and that there were black-skinned natives prior to the African slave trade. Others say they named themselves after Native Indians as a sign of respect for the help slaves received when they sought freedom. The Mardi Gras Indians have formed tribes, I think there are 32, with a hierarchy that begins with the Big Chief, the Queen, and so on down from there, all with specific roles. The Big Chief decides where they will parade, where they will stop, and whether they will pass by other tribes or have a symbolic fight. They don't participate in the typical Mardi Gras parade that most of us are familiar with. Historically, few in the ghetto felt they would be able to join the traditional parade so the black neighborhoods in New Orleans gradually developed their own style of celebrating Mardi Gras with their own unique parade. This isn't one of the funeral parades but is held during Mardi Gras. I think I would prefer seeing this parade if given the choice.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
We were able to get a personalized guided tour of the Backstreet Cultural Museum located in an old house in the Tremé neighborhood. The Museum holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of things related to New Orleans’ African American community-based traditions. There are exhibits for the Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs.
Mardi Gras Indian suits are astounding. They cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and can weigh upwards of one hundred pounds. Our guide told us that some of the suits are valued at $50,000 or more. A suit usually takes between six to nine months to plan and complete. Each Indian designs and creates his own suit. Elaborate bead patches depict meaningful and symbolic traditions.
The beadwork is exquisite. I think these suits belong to a Queen and either a knight or bishop.
For some reason I was fascinated by the suit on the left, below. The part hanging in the lower part of the suit is called the apron, and this one consisted of a complete castle - I can't imagine how much it weighed or how long it took to make.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Parades, and First and Second Lines
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs can be traced back to 19th century benevolent societies that provided health care and burial services for their members. Today many of the members of these clubs can't afford to pay for insurance so the clubs help with health care costs, funeral expenses and financial hardships. There are over 80 clubs and it was wonderful to hear about the sense of community and caring they provide. I don't know what the dues are, but evidently once you belong to a Club you know you will be taken care of.
The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs represent their different communities, and one of their main forms of expression is the funeral parade. The jazz parade follows a pre-planned route with different stops along the way to stop and perform, as well as involve more members of the community.
Everyone is welcome so we joined two different funeral parades, one small and one pretty large.
The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are the organizers, originators, and sponsors of the Second Line parades for which the city is famous. The parade has a grand marshal, who could be a man or woman.
Club members who are usually dressed in coordinated suits and classy hats. They jump, dance, twirl decorated parasols, blow whistles and wave feathered fans.
The brass band follows the parade’s grand marshal and club members. The Club members and brass band are known as the First Line.
The people who follow behind the First Line to join in the festivities is the Second Line, which gives the term Second Line Parade to these parades.
We were pretty fascinated by all of this - it was nice to get away from the typical tourist areas and learn something new. The links that follow have more in-depth information -