As the rain fell last weekend, the bravest of parade-goers lined historic St. Charles Avenue. From down the street, the massive head of a dark-haired woman dressed in buckskin moved toward them. As if on cue, spectators dressed in warm hats, thick jackets and plastic ponchos cheered and raised their hands up.
From the float, tomahawks rained — faux blades, edge over edge.
Black furry tomahawks, plastic clappers shaped like red and yellow tomahawks, a plastic headband topped with blue tomahawks, and turquoise frisbees emblazoned with the face of a Native American with a feathered headdress.
The throws seemed sought-after by the crowd. People ran and jumped and even dove to get them. In many ways, the Krewe of Choctaw seemed like every other parade that rolls during the carnival season.
It’s hard to understand the krewe and its theme. Here are its riders, the tomahawk-throwers, some wearing face paint. But when a local advocate asked about the krewe’s membership, she was told that no one who rides in the krewe is Choctaw or Indigenous.
As the local society pages describe it, the krewe’s annual ball is called “The Big Pow Wow.” The ball’s court includes “Indian braves, Indian maidens and papooses.”
This raises some serious questions. Is this racism disguised as pageantry? Or should this be seen as the type of Carnival satire and vamping that defies good taste – but is tolerated during this often-tasteless time of the year?
For Indigenous people, the predominantly white krewe represents a mockery and harmful portrayal of culture.
Last year, some Choctaw people held signs along the parade route as the Krewe of Choctaw passed. “Pi tasimbo ish ahkaniya,” read one sign, Choctaw for “You look crazy.”
Scierra LeGarde, of the Bayou Lacombe Band of Choctaw, is calling for the abolishment of Krewe of Choctaw – and any other krewes that inaccurately represent other people’s culture and traditions.
For her, the fact that the Krewe of Choctaw still rolls in 2024 defies the vision set more than three decades ago by the late Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor, who authored the ordinance that integrated Carnival krewes. As Taylor put it in 1991, on the day the ordinance passed: “There may be some day a generation that will enjoy Carnival, feeling they can participate in any and every aspect of the festivities.”
Last weekend, LeGarde was hurt to see the Krewe of Choctaw pass, blissfully ignorant to her heritage. “When we view how we are depicted during Carnival season, it’s basically someone wearing our culture as a mask and that is where the issue really lies,” she said. “It’s a combination of a lack of education and awareness of native communities today, combined with an inaccurate and biased Hollywood depiction of us that perpetuates these stereotypes.”
The portraits painted on the floats and throws and labeled “Choctaw” are also wildly inaccurate, LeGarde said. “When you go to the Krewe of Choctaw, you see (characters and krewe members wearing) headdresses and buckskins. But we didn’t wear any of that. Get rid of the fringe and beaded depiction of people living in teepees and red-face,” she said.
Choctaw people migrated to southeast Louisiana nearly 300 years ago
In some ways, LeGarde can see the krewe’s presence as an opportunity for education. Her Choctaw ancestry and identity has its roots in the Deep South, predominantly Mississippi and some parts of Alabama.
A few years ago, the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana – which includes four federally recognized native tribes and the United Houma Nation, a state-recognized tribe – joined with tribal councils from across the nation to successfully demand that the Washington Redskins retire their team name and mascot. Because the Krewe of Choctaw is local, the necessity of this change feels even more pressing to LeGarde and other Choctaw people.
Because this is the place they call home.
Choctaw people – including the ancestors of LeGarde’s Bayou Lacombe Tribe – migrated to southeast Louisiana around 1740 due to social upheavals within the tribe.
Today, Louisiana has multiple Choctaw communities, including one federally recognized tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, located in the town of Trout, Louisiana, in LaSalle Parish, which descends from families who migrated around 1850 from Mississippi to what is now Jena, La., during the time of forced removal, when the U.S. government removed more than 10,000 Choctaw people from their ancestral grounds east of the Mississippi River.
It is difficult to summarize Choctaw customs and crafts in Louisiana, LeGarde said. Among Choctaw people across the state, traditions vary depending on their geography and the influence of other cultures. In central Louisiana, the Clifton Choctaws in Rapides Parish are – like the Jena Band – known for intricate pine straw baskets and the vanishing practice of tanning animal hide.
On the western edge of the state, in Sabine and Natchitoches parishes, traditions within the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb are influenced by Spanish culture, including Catholic conversion, Spanish language and food traditions that include salsa, picantes, and tamales, all Indigenous dishes adopted by the Spanish. The Choctaw-Apache also carve, do leatherwork, and plait whips.
Last weekend, the set of floats that may have been most accurate came toward the end of the parade. Not in the stern portrayal of a Choctaw man, but in the powdered-wigged Frenchman that followed closely behind him. “The French and the Americans pushed us back until there was barely anything left,” LeGarde said.
Krewe is “fun family organization”
One group is authentic. The other is entertainment.
Tribal members in the Jena Band must descend from a member of the Official 1995 Tribal Roll, created when the tribe gained federal recognition. Anyone seeking enrollment in the band must submit an ancestry chart and schedule a DNA test to match the applicant to their descendant.
To become a member of the Krewe of Choctaw, prospective members must agree to wearing headpiece, costume and masks for the entire duration of the parade.
“We are a fun family organization,” said Daniel Meeks, the president of Krewe of Choctaw, the only comment he would give when contacted by The Lens.
According to a brief history printed in the Times-Picayune in 1995, the Krewe of Choctaw was founded in 1935 by a state representative, Leonard Santos of Algiers. The group first paraded in 1939, as the social arm of a once-powerful political machine known as the Regular Democratic Organization, the oldest political and civic institution in New Orleans and the United States.
Its name, like its symbol, does not have deep significance. It came from a wooden Indian displayed at the Choctaw Club on St. Charles Avenue, the Times-Pic noted.
Then, nearly 40 years ago, John Heindel, a krewe president traveled with other members of his krewe to Philadelphia, Miss., to meet with Chief Philip Martin, longtime chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The trip seems to have come from a yearning for legitimacy.
“I wanted our chief and princess to meet some real Choctaw Indians,” Heindel told the Times-Picayune. “We had no idea what to expect, but we ended up inviting Choctaw Chief Martin to the ball and parade. When he visited New Orleans, he made a tear-jerking speech about how the American Indians survived,” Heindel said.
Afterward, Heindel recounted, the krewe would make an annual trip to Philadelphia, Miss., to participate in the Choctaw Indian fair there. In 1994, Chief Martin rode in a limousine as grand marshal in the Choctaw Krewe parade. Observers from the time said that there were trips back-and-forth for several years; the krewe would visit Chief Martin’s annual fair in Mississippi; he would visit for Carnival.
Chief Martin died in 2010. Heindel has also passed away. It is unknown if the leaders who followed Heindel as president had tried to connect with any native Choctaws.
Change possible, through policy or public opinion
Last year, as Choctaw tribal members planned to protest the krewe’s parade, they contacted Alison McCrary, a civil-rights and social-justice movement attorney and member of the Bvlbancha intertribal community. McCrary is an enrolled citizen of the Ani-Yun-Wiya Cherokee Nation through her maternal side.
First, McCrary made an overture to the krewe.
“I reached out to the Krewe of Choctaw President and asked him if he or anyone in his krewe was of native heritage so they could properly affiliate with tribes if they are,” McCrary said. “He said no, none of us are.”
That set the policy wheels in motion.
In January of 2023, McCrary worked with the Bvlbancha intertribal community to propose a seven-point amendment to the existing Mardi Gras Parade ordinance to reform what krewes represent. One of the proposal’s main goals is to end any parade krewe’s insinuation of affiliation with any federally or state recognized sovereign nation without the consent of the tribal government.
The proposed amendment would also bar krewe names that include any references to race, ethnicity, national identity or origin – unless those references match the founders or krewe leaders’ heritages or identities and the majority (50% or more) of the krewe membership’s heritages or identities, or if the krewe is sponsored by ethnic/racial organizations with good standing of their communities.
A proposed 15-member diversity, equity and inclusion committee would guide the process, which specifically does not apply to the city’s tribes of Black masking Indians, also known as Mardi Gras Indians, or to the Krewe of Zulu, which comes from the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club founded in 1909.
When asked about such an amendment, New Orleans City Council President JP Morrell suggested that the first step would be testimony at the Council’s post-Mardi Gras evaluation meeting planned for April 10. He has already heard some of the issues that will likely be raised at the meeting, including ladders, and the barriers they create in crowds, and the so-called “Krewe of Chad,” which impeded streetcar operations by spreading tarps across the tracks.
“That’s where we’ll look at what worked and what didn’t,” Morrell said.
At the meeting, he and other Council members plan to collect information and if something is an action item, move it forward through the Council or through the mayor’s Mardi Gras advisory council, Morrell said.
Some individuals have expressed concern that the current array of federal judges would be likely to rule the Mardi Gras Parade amendment ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. But McCrary hasn’t given up yet. From her experience, she said, the First Amendment is always contested and evolving.
“There are First Amendment struggles in many institutions, universities, and sports teams right now. The government and other leaders are trying to navigate the dilemma between free speech and racism,” said McCrary, who would like to push forward.
“Passing ordinances that challenge the status quo require both moral courage and political will,” she said.
To determine the best solutions, McCrary said, the City Council can play an important role, by requesting standards, leading conversations, and holding hearings in an effort to make Carnival more inclusive, as Dorothy Mae Taylor had intended in 1991, when her ordinance banned discrimination by race, gender and creed.
Still, policy has its limits, said McCrary, who has negotiated past agreements between City Hall, the police, and other groups. Her preference is to convince krewe members to make changes – and to sway the public’s hearts and minds.
To see the power of public sentiment, you need look no further than Wednesday’s paltry parade turnout Nyx, once a wildly popular krewe. “Community sets the expectations and enforces standards of decency, morals, and ethics,” McCrary said.