After Katrina, photographer Christopher Porche West took pains to recover a suit. A very special suit, as reported by the Times-Picayune. Beaded from head to toe, the now-legendary "Geronimo suit" took 9th Ward resident Carl Merricks four years to create. And it might have languished in a trash bag forever had Porche West not rescued it.
That suit was a key into the mysterious world of the Mardi Gras Indians — a mainstay of New Orleans' Fat Tuesday celebrations going on today. For three decades, Porche West has been documenting New Orleans' Indian culture. And he's had the privilege of access, which is not easy to get.
"They have been studied but never definitively defined, documented but never successfully duplicated," writes Kalamu ya Salaam, an educator from the 9th Ward, and author of a 1997 museum essay. "Indeed," he asks, "who and what are the Mardi Gras Indians?"
If the culture is elusive, that's because it's exclusive. Sure, plenty of folks have started photographing the fanfare from the sidelines — and HBO's Treme has given it a nod. But Porche West did something different in 1995 and set up a formal portrait studio. "In all, 40 different Indians were persuaded to collaborate in the effort," his website reads, "the first and only time that the Indians themselves were part of the process of their own documentation."
Over the years, Porche West has photographed now-legendary designers and their creations — as well as the culture that surrounds them.
The Mardi Gras Indian culture is divided up into "tribes." Individuals spend an entire year (and often thousands of dollars) creating costumes that will be worn for one season, then disassembled or retired. It's a friendly competition, intensely communal and familial, and a folk art expression unlike any other in the country. That much is known.
As to when, exactly, the Mardi Gras Indians formed — that's unclear, though many speculate it was during the late 1800s, when racial tension was at a height in New Orleans, and black neighborhoods felt unwelcome at mainstream celebrations.
It's also not totally obvious where the Native American motif comes from, though many, like the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council hold that they named themselves after Native Americans "to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery," according to the website. "It was often local Indians who accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom."
Regardless of its origins, the tradition still thrives today. And when I called Porche West this morning, no surprise, he had little time to talk. He was already out on the street, chronicling Fat Tuesday, the annual coming-out party for the Mardi Gras Indian.
More of Porche West's photos can be found in his book, Eyes of Eagles: New Orleans' Black Mardi Gras Indians, and on his Flickr page.