This time of year especially, New Orleans' streets ring with an age-old battle cry: "Tu way pocky way," which translates from Creole into something akin to "get the hell out of the way." Members of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes chant this phrase while donning elaborate hand-sewed costumes made of feathers and beads. Though associated primarily with the holiday of Mardi Gras, the Indians are actually a fixture of the New Orleans landscape year-round. The biggest day of their calendar, however, is approaching in less than two weeks when they will proceed with pomp and insolence through the city, waging wars of song, dance and diatribe along the way.
The exact origins of the ritual are unclear but the tradition has its roots both in the cultures of the Africans who were brought to America in bondage and the Native Americans who lived there before Europeans arrived. There had been a history of co-operation and exchange between African slaves and Native Americans in the area around New Orleans since shortly after the city's founding near the mouth of the Mississippi by the French in 1699. Even after the US purchased Louisiana in 1803 and tried to brutally suppress this relationship, an affinity endured. It is from this bond that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition was born.
By the late 19th century, groups of black men in New Orleans were wearing costumes that paid homage to the outfits of some Native Americans tribes while performing rites that showed vestiges of the ceremonies of West African secret societies. Eventually, individual groups developed their own complex hierarchies that included "big chiefs" at the top, followed by "spy boys", "flag boys" and "wild men".
Group rivalries also arose, sometimes resulting in violent confrontations. In what became a form of gang warfare, tribes would plan attacks to coincide with Mardi Gras when the city's police were already stretched thin, thus making notorious the name, Mardi Gras Indians. By the mid-20th century, however, the Indians' clashes had evolved to become mostly non-violent affairs in which tribes attempted to outclass their rivals.
That custom carries on today with tribes such as the Guardians of Flames, Creole Wild West, Fi-Yi-Yi, Wild Magnolias, 9th Ward Hunters, Wild Tchoupitoulas, Yellow Pocahontas and Golden Eagles. Each Indian big chief is required to sew a new costume for himself every year, which can require hundreds of hours of work. The garb can weigh more than 50kg and cost tens of thousands of dollars in terms of materials and labour. These are considerable resources for people who often come from working- or lower-class backgrounds.
The practice of the Mardi Gras Indians has long been the domain of those who have been most excluded from the city's celebrations for the more well-heeled, such as masquerade balls and the parades of official carnival krewes. This fact has almost certainly imbued the Indian tradition with a uniquely defiant pride and, indeed, it proved resilient even after Hurricane Katrina. Many of the Indian chants have made their way into New Orleans' lively repertoire of recorded music - several tribes have developed their own musical acts that perform in local clubs and even tour internationally - including those heard in the oft-covered New Orleans classic, Indian Red, which illustrates the Indians' triumphant tone:
Mighty cooty fiyo... Here comes my big chief, big chief, big chief of the Indian Nation, the whole wild creation. And he won't bow down, not on that dirty ground. You know I love to hear the call of my Indian Red Not surprisingly then, most of the Indian's activities occur in the city's poorer neighbourhoods, which are rarely visited by tourists. Nonetheless, an Indian showdown is a sight to behold and area locals generally welcome respectful outsiders to observe and even join in the revelry.
The high holy days of Indian culture are Mardi Gras, which was celebrated near the end of last month and sees Indians join in the city's carnival festivities; the Sunday preceding St Joseph's day when there is a formally scheduled Indian parade; and the most important day of the Indians' year, St Joseph's Day itself, which is observed on March 19. When dusk approaches on that day the Indians emerge from their homes in the costumes they sewed over the previous year. They gather into their tribes and undertake capricious paths through the city singing their own praises.
At some point in the night, the tribes will converge at such public arenas as Shakespeare Park, Hunter's Field or an area near Armstrong Park whose Congo Square was once a ritualistic meeting place during slavery times. By the time the Indians arrive at these spots, crowds of eager onlookers will have formed, with ad-hoc vendors selling beer out of the back of pickup trucks or food such as boiled pig knuckles from metal bins.
The tribe's big chief will lead his flock as they strut across the site's grounds. Preening his plumage for all to admire, he will shout call-and-response verses amid syncopated drumming that bears similarities with both military marches and Afro-Caribbean beats. Costumed tribe members will be followed in a loose procession by what is known as a second line, or a ragtag group of paraders who are along for the ride and who might have cobbled together an arrangement of instruments that could include a full brass band or only people tapping out rhythms on glass bottles with sticks. If newcomers want to participate, it's easy enough to join in the procession and chant along, though it couldn't hurt to have a tambourine in your hand.
At some point chiefs of rival tribes will meet in a face-off during which chests are puffed up, clever insults hurled, dance moves exchanged and costumes are flaunted before cheering and jeering spectators. The chief who can't hold his own in this match of strong words and bright feathers will be forced to get the hell out of the way so the victorious tribe can roll on to the next show of strength.