The Undersung Histories of Mardi Gras’s Black Indians

The Undersung Histories of Mardi Gras’s Black Indians

In the predawn, Demond Melancon threads a detailed mosaic made of a million tiny glass beads. The stretch of canvas is etched with designs in red, gold, and green—the signature colors of the Rastafarian movement. He’ll continue his needlework long after the sun sets and, eventually, sew patches of the canvas into an apron, a chest piece, and a headdress.

Melancon is the leader of the Young Seminole Hunters, one of many groups whose members spend months sculpting elaborate suits that they’ll wear during Mardi Gras, to honor the roles some Native Americans played in the liberation of enslaved Black people. When the day comes, Melancon is no longer himself: he’s the Big Chief, a title bestowed on the leader of the tribe. The documentary “All on a Mardi Gras Day” follows the loop and swoop of Melancon’s needle as he stitches together his hundred-and-fifty-pound suit for the celebration. Known as “Black Indians,” the participants are “the most beautiful thing in New Orleans on Mardi Gras,” he says.

“All on a Mardi Gras Day” is the first independent film directed by Michal Pietrzyk, who enlisted the help of the producer David Favret, a native of New Orleans, to gain access to this insular community, called the Black Indians. Pietrzyk was first drawn to the suits as “just an incredible visual piece,” he told me, via Zoom, from his home office in Seattle. “It’s this idea of obsession,” he added. “Anytime you have an uncompromising character that lives by a code,” it’s a story fit for a documentary. “As soon as you open the door to his home, the entire space is dedicated to his culture.”

In the documentary short—filmed in advance of the 2018 Mardi Gras season—Melancon recites the origin story of the Black Indians. The camera pans to a dream sequence set along a riverbank in a deciduous forest. “The slaves ran away through the revolts and the Underground Railroad, and the Indians gave them refuge in different spots,” he says, meandering through the woods. This history, largely oral, has long been underdocumented. When census-takers east of the Mississippi discovered runaway slaves in Indigenous territory, the federal government threatened to renege on treaties and trade agreements. In the end, the Native Americans remained allied with the freedom-seekers. “The Mardi Gras Indians pay homage to them,” Melancon says.

In the film, Melancon, who has striking, hazelnut-colored eyes, reveals that the Black Indian community and the ritual of beading saved his life. When he was younger, he used heroin; his mother got high, too. He knows that his neighborhood, in and around the Ninth Ward, needs the Black Indian culture because it’s a safety net. The culture—Rastafari, the beading, the masking—is what helped him get and stay clean. But he says that, because the rents there became too expensive, “a million and one Indians” were forced to move out of New Orleans and away from where the masking culture was born.

Melancon is “sick behind it,” he says, because “the Big Chief is supposed to be the father figure of the neighborhood.” He sews “rebellious” to these modern injustices. Melancon is a leader because he prevailed despite the circumstances of his upbringing. Not just a metaphorical father, he now has two children. His wife, Alicia, who helps sew every suit he flaunts, is a quiet yet strong secondary presence in the film. Pietrzyk’s camera captures the light reflecting off her cheekbones while she dexterously handles her needle and thread.

On Mardi Gras morning, Melancon transforms. Ostrich-feather fluff reaches into the air, and beadwork glitters in the sunlight. “I’m Big Chief!” he hollers. “Can’t lose!” Drumming echoes throughout the neighborhood, and he steps out dressed in a velvet goldenrod vest bearing intricate, beaded portraits of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I and Empress Menen Asfaw—icons in the Rastafarian belief system. These are the spirits he conjures when his needle dances in preparation for the tribal ritual, all on a Mardi Gras Day.