The Indians come out on St. Joseph’s Day

St. Joseph’s Day is a Sicilian holiday falling near the vernal equinox, a spring feast that is superficially Catholic, but probably a lot older than that. People make massive quantities of their fanciest food and leave it as an offering to the saint at a St. Joseph’s altar. Some are double wide garages with a statue, packed with homemade food. The food is later shared by all, with the poor getting first spot in line and first dibs at the leftovers.

This is a cool tradition, but it is New Orleans so there is always something cooler. St. Joseph’s Day is the day when the Mardi Gras Indians meet at sunset in their neighborhoods in mock battles dressed in their prettiest suits. They chant, sing, and beat the drum(usually a tambourine), calling out the other tribes and showing mutual respect for the work put into the regalia and the relative social position of the big chief. Each tribe has a big chief, sometimes a queen, a spy boy whose job it is to look for the other tribes, and a flag boy who announces the presence of the tribes. There are usually family members or junior members of the tribes walking with the group, supporting them by joining the chants and bringing drinks, controlling traffic, etc. They wander the streets of the neighborhoods, seeking each other out for a meeting, not unusually for New Orleans often outside a bar, perform a little ceremonial conflict, and move on to the next tribe. At sunset, a large group of tribes meet under the I-10 overpass, and re-enact the challenge and response rituals. This is also a relatively modern tradition, begun in response to a ban on public marching by black people in the latter days of slavery and Reconstruction that carried on right through the 1990s including a lot of police conflict with the un-authorized marching groups, that clearly is part of an old tradition.

I saw the Indians marching in my neighborhood last year around sunset at Iggy’s after having given up on them(and put away my camera) for the year, and didn’t want to make that mistake twice. I walked out my door this St. Joseph’s Day, and towards the Treme. I saw the flag, a feathered sign on a long stick carried by the flag boy, of a tribe from about four blocks away, and crossed St. Claude to follow. This was a neighborhood thing, with people opening their garages and cooking, little kids all over the street, some dressed in their suits and others in school clothes, and people out in the street with go-cups full of hard liquor. I walked with them for a couple of hours, stopping as it got darker and the procession got towards the middle of Treme. I saw three or four distinct tribes in spectacular colors and embroidered beadwork, and two challenges that ended amicably with both big chiefs being respected.

Downtown Super Sunday, the next time the tribes meet, and perhaps the last for the year before these suits are retired, is coming right up, and I hope to shoot that as well.

More photos here:

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