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History of the Black Masking Tradition

Eric Craig | 3/14/2017, 4:02 p.m.
Sunday, March 19th marks Super Sunday, where several Uptown Mardi Gras Indians will gather and parade throughout the City in ...

Sunday, March 19th marks Super Sunday, where several Uptown Mardi Gras Indians will gather and parade throughout the City in honor of St. Joseph’s Day. Arguably, the most attended processional is the one led by the Mardi Gras Indian Council.

While the festivities will take place on Sunday, a deeper question remains. How did the Mardi Gras Indian Tradition come about?

Unmasking the Tradition

To understand the Mardi Gras Indian Tradition, Data News Weekly interviewed the Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Tribe, Chief Shaka Zulu.

Zulu, along with his wife Na’imah, are the Founders of Golden Feather, which is a Restaurant and Gallery located directly across from Congo Square in Treme’. The gallery showcases Mardi Gras Indian art, masking, and serves as a lecture hall where Chief Zulu gives an oral presentation on the history of the culture.

“We are a culture that lives on oral traditions. And if you don’t document your history, someone will document it for you,” Chief Zulu said.

To start, the chief refuses the name Mardi Gras Indian. He says the name was given to the native tribes because they would perform on Mardi Gras Day. Instead, the Chief recognizes the tradition as Black Masking, an Ancient African Tradition.

“I have not really seen much about this culture that seems to be accurate. So, it prompted me to start doing research on my own,” Zulu said.

The chief documented the Culture of Black Indians throughout the United States and in Louisiana. He noted that the existence of Black people, and its indigenous people predate the arrival of the European colonizers.

In fact, according to Zulu, Africans have explored many parts of the world. While already present, Blacks did not begin arriving in Louisiana in the Transatlantic Slave Trade until roughly 1718.

Despite the slave trade, many Blacks escaped colonizers and took refuge with the indigenous people of the Americas. While the common notion is to refer to the indigenous people as “Native American,” Zulu refuses to, stating that all people deserve to be called by their nation, and not by the name given to them by colonizers.

The Start of Masking

According to Zulu, Black Masking predates masking tradition in the United States. The art form stems from African Tradition, primarily in Nigeria.

“When it refers to Black Indians—Mardi Gras Indians—I can speak of why and when we started, and who are the cultural bearers of that culture,” Zulu said.

“Blacks have always worn feathers. All we did, once we got to this land, was practice traditions we have done many years ago,” he added.

One aspect of Black Masking is its unique use of beads for art and decoration of the suits. Zulu noted that beading is a strong part of Nigerian Culture. In Nigeria, beading is used to enhance art, furniture and other artifacts of meaning, he added.

Most of all, Zulu said, the beading style used in African Culture is different than the way it has been utilized in Native American Culture.