It may be just another Tuesday where you are, but in New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras!
The cultural traditions surrounding Mardi Gras reach out all over the city. There are costumed revelers with no particular affiliation roaming the streets in bands, old-line Uptown parades that toss innumerable creative "throws" from huge rolling floats, and Zulu, a 100-year-old African American response to being unable to participate in mainstream Mardi Gras, featuring grass skirts and coveted coconuts as its signature throw.
Another way the African American community marks the day, is by taking to the streets dressed in elaborate suits with incredibly intricate bead-work and plumes of feathers. Each suit is handmade by a community of sewers, a large number of them men, who spend an entire year on them and wear them only three times before starting on the next year's suit.
(Pictured Below: Big Chief Fi Yi Yi Victor Harris and the Mandingo Warriors (photo from House of Dance and Feathers website)
In the Lower 9th Ward, Ronald Lewis, former Council Chief of the Choctaw Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe he helped to start, runs The House of Dance And Feathers - a museum of Mardi Gras Indian culture. He explains why he and his people have been masking Indian since the late 19th century:
Coming out of slavery, being African American wasn’t socially acceptable. By masking like Native Americans, it created an identity of strength. Native Americans under all the pressure and duress, would not concede. These people were almost driven into extinction, and the same kind of feeling came out of slavery, “You’re not going to give us a place here in society, we’ll create our own.” In masking, they paid respect and homage to the Native American by using their identity and making a social statement that despite the odds, they’re not going to stop.
To learn more about Ronald and his museum, visit his website: www.houseofdanceandfeathers.org
You can also support Ronald's work by ordering his book from the Neighborhood Story Project: The House of Dance and Feathers.
We hope you take a moment today to appreciate the diversity around you. One of the lessons of New Orleans is to appreciate the richness of culture that's uncovered when we seek to understand that which we do not understand.
And please, come visit us sometime in the Lower 9th Ward. As Ronald says, you will "come in a stranger, leave a friend."
Happy Mardi Gras!
MA & Sarah
: Ronald Lewis in his museum, the House of Dance and Feathers)