Culture

Mardi Gras Indians Tradition Examined In OSU Newark Student Documentaries

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Late February marks the annual celebration of Carnival, or Mardi Gras, a festive season that takes place before the Christian liturgical season of Lent.

One of the most time-honored, and, at one time, most secretive, portions of the Carnival celebration in New Orleans is the parade of the Mardi Gras Indians. The tradition has ties to the 19th century, when escaped slaves found shelter, food, and family among Native Americans living in the southern parts of the United States.

In the following years, a rich tradition of creating elaborate feather-and-bead-laden suits for “masking Indian” at Carnival developed among the Black community of New Orleans. During the parade various “tribes” hailing from different portions of the city chant and dance together, dazzling each other with their mind-bendingly detailed suits.

In 2012, professors in the Ohio State Newark’s English (Virginia Cope and Sunny Caldwell) and Comparative Studies departments (Katherine Borland) took five students, (Tesse Feick, Steven Foley, Tiffany O’Connor, Michael Piemonte, and Vikas Pulluru,) to New Orleans to document the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians as a part of a service learning project.

“One important aspect for service learning is that it is meant to be differentiated from volunteer work,” said Cope, Ohio State Newark Associate Dean, Ph.D. “Students are not just providing volunteer work; the idea is the service enriches their own development academically and culturally.”

What started out as a relatively small project blossomed over four years into two nationally screening PBS documentaries, The Big Chiefs of the Carnival: Spirit Leads My Needle and The Big Queens of the Carnival: It’s Your Glory.

Initially, the project began with a connection that Cope had to a New Orleans Times Picayune columnist.

“There had been some issues in recent years with police oppression of the Mardi Gras Indian parades,” said Cope. “The leaders of the Mardi Gras Indians Council wanted more reporting on what they do as a part of the community, but they weren’t the kind of organization to have a flashy website or anything like that. Initially our mission was to create a website for them, so that when the New York Times or Smithsonian Magazine looked them up, they could figure out who to call.”

Filmmaker Mike Yearling came with the students to document the interviews conducted as a part of the project. Cope said that very quickly it became apparent that the interviews were “the makings for a great film.”

“We wanted to tell the stories of the chiefs in their own words; not through somebody else’s words or somebody else’s interpretation; but in their own words what it is they do,” said Cope.

By the time that the 2012-2013 academic year came to a close, there was still work to be done on the project, which was rapidly expanding. Cope said that she realized that involvement with the  growing project would be the most beneficial to students with grounding in African American studies and history.

“We wanted to tell the stories of the chiefs in their own words; not through somebody else’s words or somebody else’s interpretation; but in their own words what it is they do,” – Virginia Cope, Ph.D., assistant dean at the Ohio State University Newark

Cope contacted Tiyi Morris, an associate professor at the Ohio State Newark in African and African American studies, and inquired as to whether she would have any interest in taking part in the project. She was; and soon took five additional students to New Orleans to continue the project.

“Initially, we were going to go down to continue the work that Dr. Cope had begun,” said Morris. “Some of the themes I focus on in that class are women’s issues and black women’s issues. A couple of those students who were selected to do that service learning project in New Orleans had also been enrolled in an introductory Women’s Studies class, “Women, Sex and Power,” and they noticed the oversight in the lack of discussion of women in the first film (Big Chiefs). That was one of the things I noticed, and one of the things I was immediately interested in; but they picked up on it by themselves and they were interested in investigating the role of women in the Mardi Gras Indian culture.”

Students Ashley Theodore, Torah Silvera, Angela Whipple, Lenise Sunnenberg, and Rian Hamadnalla ran with their observation and began interviewing the queens of the carnival for the second documentary, which has been nominated for an Emmy, Big Queens of the Carnival: It’s Your Glory.

“In many ways, this project was the perfect service learning project because it enhanced the skills of the students and broadened their academic experience and serviced a community need,” said Morris. “This really allowed both the students and the Mardi Gras Indians to achieve goals that they both desired.”

The Big Chiefs of the Carnival: Spirit Leads My Needle and The Big Queens of the Carnival: It’s Your Glory will broadcast back to back on WOUB-TV Thursday, Feb. 23, starting at 10 p.m.

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