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African, Native American Cultures Mix in New Orleans Mardi Gras


Tuesday is Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday," celebrated by Christians around the world as the last day before Lent, which is a period of fasting. The celebration is special this year in New Orleans, which is still trying to recover from the massive flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina six months ago. Many African Americans in the city are also struggling to keep alive their own Mardi Gras traditions.

The songs and chants of the Mardi Gras Indians have become part of the fabric of New Orleans culture. The Indian clubs have such names as "The Wild Magnolias", "Mandingo Warriors," and the "The Wild Tchoupitoulas".

The Mardi Gras Indians are not Native American Indians. They are African Americans who take to the streets during carnival wearing elaborate costumes with intricate bead work and colorful feathers. The words they chant are derived from various sources including African languages brought to New Orleans by slaves.

The heritage of the Mardi Gras Indians is preserved at the Backstreet Museum, in a small wood-frame house in the neighborhood known as Treme, north of the French Quarter.

Museum director Silvester Francis says the connection between New Orleans African Americans and American Indians dates back to a time in the 19th century when some Indian tribes helped slaves to escape.

"The Americans [Indians] was the ones who helped the blacks to run away from slavery, so we honor the American Indians. So when Carnival comes around, we start acting and performing like American Indians," explained Francis.

The Mardi Gras Indians also draw on warrior traditions from Africa and, in the 19th century, there were sometimes violent clashes between different Indian gangs or tribes on the streets of New Orleans. Today, these groups avoid conflict and instead compete with each other to see who can develop the most beautiful Mardi Gras costume.

Silvester Francis says they are carrying on their tradition this year despite the fact that most of them lost their homes and some of their members lost their lives six months ago to Hurricane Katrina.

"The majority of people lost their whole house. I lost my house, too, but this is my museum. My house went under, too, but the museum was spared," he added.

In the Backstreet Museum, Francis maintains displays of winning costumes from past events, photographs of various groups and items that have been donated by American Indian tribes who have responded to the honor they are shown here in New Orleans.

Silvester Francis says his small museum had some roof damage from Katrina, but is otherwise okay. He is more concerned about keeping alive his community's traditions now that so many people have been displaced. Many of the people participating in this year's Mardi Gras Indian events have had to travel from faraway cities where they took refuge after the hurricane. Most residential areas in New Orleans are still uninhabitable and recovery work is proceeding slowly.

But Francis says the descendants of African slaves who started this Carnival tradition must keep it alive for future generations.

"We support our own culture. Yeah, this is going to go on, even if we have to find a different way to do it, it will go on. We are not going to leave it to die because our ancestry is so deeply involved in this," he said.

In addition to their appearances at this year's Mardi Gras, the Indian clubs plan to perform on two weekends in March. The Backstreet Museum in Treme is open year round.

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