It’s no secret that Gulfport loves parades. And if, like me, you’re drawn to the spectacle of these rolling revelries, you’ll enjoy Florida author Nikesha Elise Williams’ book, “Mardi Gras Indians,” forthcoming this October from LSU Press. Part of a new “Louisiana True” series that explores iconic traditions of the Pelican State, Mardi Gras Indians looks at the history of “masking Indian” – the centuries-old tradition in which Black New Orleanians construct extraordinary suits of beads and feathers to march in tribes of family and friends during the city’s famous Carnival season.
Using historical evidence, Williams uncovers the origins of masking in colonial New Orleans, where dance traditions carried by enslaved peoples of Africa met and melded with the Native American communities that provided shelter for runaway slaves. Drawing from documentary films and interviews with practicing maskers, Williams shows how masking Indian continues to be, for many, an important gesture of defiance and self-expression in the face of oppression – especially as they have weathered the destruction brought to their city by Hurricane Katrina and the global pandemic.
Though there are many places to learn about Mardi Gras Indians – including documentaries such as Lisa Katzman’s “Tootie’s Last Suit,” which the book relies rather heavily on at times – one virtue of Williams’s book is the careful connections she weaves between the scholarly stuff she lays out in the opening chapter and the recurring themes and ideas that surface in her interviews. An interesting example of this comes in the form of the well-known lyric “jockomo feena ne,” which was popularized in the 1950s by James Crawford’s song “Jock-A-Mo” (and subsequently covered by many other singers). While, as Williams notes, scholars think the line is derived from a Choctaw word meaning “very good,” maskers typically translate it as “kick my ass” – a crucial piece of the “throwing slang” tradition that ensues when two tribes of Mardi Gras Indians meet.
The fresh life that Williams breathed into my casual understanding of this tradition – helped along by stunning photographs of the men and women who mask today – was, for me, the biggest reward of reading this book. Whether you’re pining in the long dry spell between Gulfport’s GeckoFest and Veterans Day parades, or longing for a deep dive into one of America’s most unique and fascinating cultural customs, you’ll find refreshment here.