Next year Lafayette will welcome a new krewe to the scene. Comprised of Lafayette’s most well-to-do families, a member leaked details of their first ball: some men will wear yarmulkes and dress as Jewish merchants. Others will parade around stage dressed as camera-wielding Japanese tourists, while kimono-wearing women will follow obediently behind them. The evening’s climax, however, will feature the captain and royalty donning blackface and singing minstrel songs. That none of these performers identify as Jewish, Japanese-American, or African-American makes no difference, commented the informant, as it is “all in good fun” and “no harm is meant to anyone.”
Certainly, in this day and age, citizens of Acadiana would take pause before dressing in blackface, right? Unfortunately, ethical concerns over the use of such derogatory racial costumes evaded the notice this year of one of the city’s premiere krewes. I was troubled that the krewe members wore stereotypical “Indian” costumes replete with armbands, fake religious Native American iconography, and of course caricatured Plains war bonnets. The krewe dressed that way not in homage to Mardi Gras Indians (that’s another can of worms altogether) but rather to celebrate the “Wild West,” a historical representation in itself that insidiously evokes excitement and adventure to mask its true legacy for Native peoples, that of stolen lands and decimated ancestors.
As a scholar of American Indian history, I am well aware of the pain that American Indians feel when non-Indians ridicule their cultural traditions through such appropriations. Unfortunately last weekend’s egregious disregard of cultural sensitivity reflects more widespread tolerance of racist imagery perhaps best encapsulated by the fact that the name of the NFL team representing our nation’s capital is one of the most despicable racial epithets imaginable for native peoples.
Some may argue that representations of American Indians as warriors or princesses is not harmful, but rather is based on admiration; or that Mardi Gras Indians have been around since the late 19th century, so what’s the big deal? It would take more than a letter to the editor to properly address these points, but a good place to start is here, on mascots: www.bluecorncomics.com/mascots.htm.
The celebration of Mardi Gras is an important tradition that should fill Acadiana with pride. Let us treat the members of tribal nations with respect and dignity — as human beings — and not tarnish our own traditions by mocking theirs.