Mardi Gras Indian Tribe Celebrations: Saint Joseph Night, New Orleans

thefisher March 24, 2014

Mardi Gras Indian Tribes Take Over the Streets of New Orleans

The night of March 19 (Saint Joseph Night) Mardi Gras Indian tribes come out in droves. In the Central City neighborhood and in the 7th ward of New Orleans you can walk down most streets when the sun sets and hear the steady beating of their drums. The most exciting part is taking a walk down one of these streets and coming across one of the tribes. Their suits are elaborate and brightly colored creations that take the better part of a year to complete.

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Saint Joseph Night Parade, New Orleans – Mardi Gras Indian Costume

The Saint Joseph Night Procession

The Chief often starts the procession surrounded by a handful of drum and tambourine players. His “Spyboy” walks two or three blocks ahead of the tribe to alert everyone else of the presence of any other tribes. He will alert “Flagboy” who then lets the Chief know if the road is clear. If they do encounter another tribe a battle will ensue.

The whole mood around the Indians has changed drastically over the years. This has marked the third year in a row where there haven’t been any shootings or major fights between tribe members and the New Orleans police. The tradition of violence between the tribes has also completely gone away. Now each tribe, when they encounter each other on the street, will dance and chant as a way to taunt each other without the violence.

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Saint Joseph Night Parade, New Orleans – Mardi Gras Indian Tribes

Big Chief “Tootie” Montana

The tradition was changed by perhaps the most famous and most revered Indian chief, “Tootie” Montana. He “masked” – i.e., dressed up in the Indian suit – for more than 50 years.

As he grew to become Chief of the Mardi Gras Indians, he changed the images and colors of the suits. The suits became brightly beaded works of art. He hoped that in doing so, the focus would be more on shared artistry rather than violence.

The tradition changed from being one associated with violence, to one that draws families and tourists alike. Tootie masked up until he was 82 years old. He died in June 2005.

The photos included in this gallery were taken on March 19, 2014 under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge in the 7th ward of New Orleans.