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Mardi Gras IndianMardi Gras is a week away! One of the not-so-secret secret Mardi Gras traditions to be found in New Orleans is that of the Mardi Gras Indians. And no one captures the Mardi Gras Indian culture better than Oliphant Images. Dressed in brilliant, extravagant Indian regalia, the Mardi Gras Indians parade through the predominantly African American neighborhoods on Mardi Gras day, putting on an elaborate routine, especially when coming in contact with another tribe.

Mardi Gras Indians are African-American Carnival revelers in New Orleans, Louisiana, who dress up for Mardi Gras in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. Collectively, their organizations are called “gangs” or “tribes”. There are about 38 tribes. They range in size from a half dozen to several dozen members. Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since the mid-19th century, possibly before. African Americans and Native Americans have a long history of mutual cooperation and respect in Louisiana, stemming back to the late 1740s and 1750s, when many African slaves fled to the bayous of Louisiana where they were aided by Native Americans.

Years later, after the Civil War, hundreds of freed slaves joined the U.S. Ninth Cavalry Regiment, also known as Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers fought the Plains Indians on the Western Frontier. After returning to New Orleans, many ex-soldiers joined popular Wild West Shows, most notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The show wintered in New Orleans from 1884 to 1885 and was hailed by the Daily Picayune as “the people’s choice”. There was at least one black cowboy on the show, and numerous black cowhands.

On Mardi Gras in 1885, fifty to sixty Plains Indians marched in native dress on the streets of New Orleans. Later that year, the first Mardi Gras Indian gang was formed; the tribe was named “The Creole Wild West” and was most likely composed of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For a good synopsis of the Mardi Gras Indians, please read Judy Weitz’s article. To see Oliphant Images’ entire gallery, click here or visit Oliphant Images FireHouse Gallery and Photo Museum in The Cajun Village.