When I moved to New Orleans, I noticed that there were McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chickens, and I thought to myself, this place is as homogenized as the rest of the country (and much of the planet). The culture here isn’t so unique and different, I said to myself.
Then some friends took me to see the Indians come out at Bayou St. John on Super Sunday, and I realized I was wrong. This was my “New Orleans moment,” if you will, the point at which I realized that New Orleans does retain unique cultural traditions. To a white boy from the suburban Midwest, these “unique cultural traditions” are strange and freaky and weird and otherworldly and wonderful. They are what makes this city worth fighting for.
If you’ve never seen the Indians in the psychedelic finery, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m not sure I can describe it. Words fail me. So, check out this picture by the New Orleans Lady:
She has many more photos you can peruse. Or if you want to know more, read the Wikipedia article. Yeah, the costumes are fantastic, but trust me when I say it’s much more than just costumes. It’s an assemblage of traditions and songs and music and stories and behavior and art that proves culture isn’t just something that you see in a museum.
Everyone calls them Mardi Gras Indians, but that’s a misnomer, because they don’t just come out on Mardi Gras. In fact, my favorite time to see the Indians has always been Super Sunday, which is usually the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day. It’s “super” because Indians come out and parade in two different locations around the city, both uptown and downtown.
But since Katrina, Super Sunday just ain’t so super anymore. It was only uptown last year, and this year looks like it might be the same.
That makes me sad for a number of reasons. The downtown mustering ground was on Bayou St. John. Besides being a few blocks from my house, and being a beautiful open space, there’s also a historical resonance, because the bayou was used by Native Americans since Pre-Columbian times.
Will they ever come back downtown, back to the bayou?
The downtown Indians are mysterious, and the downtown route was never published in advance, so I don’t really know for sure what will happen this Sunday afternoon. That’s the source of my anxiety — not knowing.
The greater anxiety is knowing how this whole tradition is at risk. It’s been at risk for decades, I suppose, but now more than ever, what with the flood and the diaspora and the plodding recovery.