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Hail to the Chiefs

Updated: Jul 24

Long live the Mardi Gras Indians. Although Mardi Gras is the time of year where individuals come from all over the world to come celebrate the vast culture that includes dancing, bead throwing and catching, and eating sweet and sugary delights, "the best kept secret of Mardi Gras are the Mardi Gras Indians," says Helen Williams, 75-year-old New Orleanian.

On April 1, 2019, Robin Ligon-Williams, a seasoned writer that has covered a plethora of subjects including: African culture and the Mardi Gras Indians, shared her research with the class about the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans. She explained her findings on black Mardi Gras Indian culture and how they relate to indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. She also talked about the glows and grows she has experienced covering such a topic.

In her book, "Rhythm, Ritual & Resistance: African Is Alive in the Black Indians of New Orleans," Ligon-Williams explores the different Mardi Gras Indians in different areas of New Orleans. Through her Native American background and her own curiosity, she was able to successfully research and write about the Mardi Gras Indians and their connection to indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans for 20 years. But her journey was not simple, as she had to conquer a variety of deterrents in order to persevere and not lose faith in her work and herself.

After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington, she moved to New Orleans shortly after and became engulfed in New Orleans culture. Later, she started conducting her research about the Mardi Gras Indians. One of her first experiences speaking to one of the Mardi Gras Indians chief revealed that the chief did not know much about the origins of Mardi Gras either. When asked about the origins, Ligon-Williams said the Chief responded with, "We think it was a tribute to Native American tribes that took enslaved Africans in during slavery and gave them a way to express their culture," but did not know much else other than that.

This minor setback did not deter Ligon-Williams, rather it motivated her even more to further her research. As her research progressed, she said, "the [Mardi Gras] culture isn’t Native American, but rather a true extension of African culture and African masquerade culture that has occurred in West Africa for many centuries." She reveals that the styles of masquerade, or dancing, differ depending on which region the Indians are from. In addition, Ligon-Williams was able to see the Mardi Gras Indians in action, sewing suits and singing songs while working on their suits. Emmy award-winning writer and professor at Clark Atlanta University Maynard Eaton was in shock when he first saw the Mardi Gras Indians working. He said, "he was fascinated when he first saw the Mardi Gras Indians”, describing them as “big, hulky men needling and sowing." Through Ligon-Williams research, she was able to shed light on the origins of Mardi Gras Indians.

"There has been challenges, but I do what I do because it’s part of what I do," said Ligon-Williams. Despite successfully researching the Mardi Gras Indians, Ligon-Williams was met with backlash and exclusion. Ligon-Williams is a Caucasian woman that covered a black-dominated topic. This led to her being questioned by her peers and to be excommunicated from various museums. Ligon-Williams says peers at Liberty University, where she conducted her thesis project and earned her Master’s degree, questioned and poked fun at her research saying things like “what are you talking about? Voodoo?” Another instance of Ligon-Williams being discouraged to continue working on her research was at an exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. At one of many art exhibition, she received backlash that did not allow her to do interviews because of her race and wearing African garb. Although she attempted to overcome the obstacle and tell her story, she was fired for the first time due to a story written about her covering a predominately black subject. She said, "she receives the most backlash in Atlanta." Although people attempted to deter her from researching about the Mardi Gras Indians, her interest and curiosity allowed her to persevere and continue to work on her passion.

Ligon-Williams’ work is now at the Smithsonian museum due to its in-depth analysis of Mardi Gras Indian culture. Ligon-Williams said, "writing has been the key to my success," crediting her storytelling abilities for her success.

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