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March 19, 2012

Last week I was down with the flu and stuck in my bed for an entire week.  All I had the energy to do was sleep and watch TV from my laptop so I took the opportunity to catch up on a few TV series that I had missed over the past couple of years.  One of them was Treme, an HBO series that focuses on the city of New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  I’ve been wanting to watch this one for awhile since Louisiana is my home and New Orleans is in my heart.  Needless to say, after the first episode I was addicted and I recommend everyone to rent this show and watch it if you haven’t already.  HBO does an amazing job of showing what this city is all about and the characters are multi-layered and colorful much like the city itself.

While watching, I was reminded of the tradition of The Mardi Gras Black Indians, which is a group of African Americans that dress up in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel.  The tradition started in the mid 19th century and was said to have originated in reverence to the Native American population in that area that housed and helped many runaway slaves.  Every year, the Big Chief and his tribe spend hundreds of thousands of hours hand beading their costumes in an effort to be that year’s “prettiest” tribe.  The tradition is that on the sunday closest St. Joseph’s Day, which was yesterday March 18th, the tribes parade the streets and show off their festive garb.

Last week I started to research this tradition and was overwhelmed by the intricacy and work that goes into each of these suits.  Every year, a new suit is made. On the night of St. Joseph’s Day, the suits are burned in a ceremony and the process of creation starts again for the next year.  The suits are not re-uesd. How amazing is that?

If you follow The Sche Report, you know that I am a big follower of The Arts and Crafts Movement and I was so enlightened to find out that this tradition is one of the country’s earliest forms of Folk Art.  How did I not know this having been from Louisiana and grown up knowing about the Mardi Gras Indians?! Growing up I thought Louisiana only offered good music and good food, I never had a clue that people in my own backyard had contributed to the a movement that I now get so much of my inspiration from. Now it all makes perfect sense why I am so attracted to bold color, Native American jewelry and feathers!

example of intricate beadword

example of intricate beadwork

All of the beadwork has special significance and sometimes the tribes save their work and re-use it in their costume for the next year.  It was only recently that tribes have been allowed to keep their costumes in order to donate to museums and private collections for display in an effort to document this tradition.

The costumes can weigh up to 150 pounds and can cost upwards of $10,000.  Alot of times, beads and money are donated to the tribes to help with their yearly project.  The tradition originally started with only men allowed to strut their stuff, but in the late 20th century women were also allowed to participate and now you see children and families participating in the parade.

The beadwork and design absolutely amazes me and their sense of color is so festive and bright.  I think 2012 is the year of color and all of these pictures really got me in the mood for Spring.  When I go out to stores and see all the Native American influenced fashion and accessories, they pale in comparison to the real deal that you see here.  To me, buying a top that was made in china to look like it was made by a Native American is appalling.  The beadwork you see in these costumes has been passed down for generations and it is not something that can be copied for mass manufacturing.

I so wish that I was in New Orleans yesterday watching this amazing spectacle come to life for what is known as “Super Sunday”.  Can you imagine what it must look like to see 20 plus tribes all together in this garb parading down the street?! I’ve decided that next year I need to be there to experience this magic and to re-connect to my Louisiana roots.  Who’s coming with me?

All photos by Alfonso Bresciani






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