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Mardi Gras Indians on display at Jazz Fest

Friday - 5/4/2012, 3:56pm  ET

By STACEY PLAISANCE
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Mardi Gras Indians have been parading at Carnival and Louisiana festivals for generations, but growing interest in their culture has the dancing, costumed Indians on display in a new way at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Hurricane Katrina and the HBO television series "Treme" put a national spotlight on the Indians _ African-American troupes who dress in ornate costumes.

The growing interest couldn't be ignored, said Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis.

The Indians have been showcased at Jazz Fest for more than 40 years. But this year, they have an entire pavilion to display their costumes, explain their culture and demonstrate how they create elaborate headdresses and aprons.

"They've come so far in the way of public awareness, and this display gives the world an opportunity to meet them and get to know what their culture is all about," Davis said.

Davis said even before Katrina in 2005, the Indians were gaining attention. Some tribes _ including the Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias _ did recordings of their music.

"For the last 10 to 20 years they've been out there, but with `Treme' they've gotten more exposure," Davis said, recalling a scene in the series of a lone Mardi Gras Indian in full dress walking down a flood-ravaged street still dark from the months-long power outage that followed the storm. "It was a very searing, endearing image."

"Treme" stars, writers and producers met with fans at a music store in the French Quarter on Wednesday. They signed copies of the show's just-released second season on DVD. The show, which tells true-to-life Katrina experiences through fictional characters, is taping its third season.

Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native who plays a jazz musician on the show, said even he didn't know much about the Mardi Gras Indian culture until later in life. The culture stems from a working-class black culture that was largely a mystery to many New Orleanians, "even me," he said.

Tyrone Casby, big chief of the Mohawk Hunters tribe, said HBO didn't get every detail right, but it doesn't really matter.

"It showed that there is another culture here, or a subculture, more than just the floats and the Bourbon Street of Mardi Gras," Casby said.

The traditions began generations ago when black communities were unable to participate in traditional Mardi Gras parades because of segregation. It led to the creation of their own neighborhood-based Mardi Gras traditions.

There are numerous theories about the Indians' roots. Some say they stemmed from mutual respect between Africans and Native Americans in southern Louisiana. Some say it was a tribute to New Orleans area Indians who helped runaway slaves.

"That's almost neither here nor there because the art and the history are moving forward anyway," said Clarke Peters, the actor who plays a Mardi Gras Indian on "Treme."

Peters said playing a Mardi Gras Indian, and the research he's done on Native American and African culture to prepare for the role, has changed his life.

"I feel that playing it is opening up a part of my psyche, a part of my spirit that has been dormant for a long time," he said. "It's rekindling my faith in the value of culture."

Pierce said the second line organizations that included Mardi Gras Indians were formed, in part, out of necessity "out of an ugly time when segregation was happening ... to keep an economic engine happening in the community at a difficult time."

The Mardi Gras Indians also represented pride of neighborhood, Pierce said.

"It shows you the role of culture, how culture is to the community an important venue to show who you are," he said.

Besides Mardi Gras, the Indians parade through the streets of New Orleans the weekend before St. Joseph's Day, in March, and at events such as Jazz Fest.

They spend months making elaborate costumes and headdresses with colorful beads and feathers in a style influenced by the Native Americans who originally populated the New Orleans area. Katrina wiped out many of the Mardi Gras Indians' homes and costumes. They've been working for years to replace those lost or destroyed in the flood.

For the Jazz Fest display, the Indians will be sewing patches and suits and beading hats while talking to fest-goers. The display is in the festival's Cultural Exchange Pavilion, which is usually reserved for displays and performances unique to countries such as South Africa, Martinique, Brazil and Haiti.

The pavilion is located near Congo Square, the stage named after the area of New Orleans where slaves once gathered on Sundays to play music and celebrate their culture.

Jazz Fest continues through Sunday with about 200 musical acts, including the Eagles, My Morning Jacket, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters and the Neville Brothers.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)