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Prof. Ashlye Keaton, Tulane University - Mardi Gras Indians


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Professor Ashlye Keaton of Tulane University describes the work behind the creation of Mardi Gras Indians, and a new effort to protect the artists' rights.

Ashlye Keaton is an adjunct professor of law at Tulane University where she teaches courses on entertainment law.

Prof. Ashlye Keaton - Mardi Gras Indians

Creole Wild West, Yellow Pocahontas, Wild Magnolias, Mohawk Hunters, Fi Ya Ya, and Ninth Ward Hunters.

These are just some of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of New Orleans that make up a colorful and unique part of the city's history. You might have seen them on the HBO series Treme, where the storyline of a Big Chief trying to return home post-Katrina was folded into the drama. The Big Chief's fierce pride was evident when he dressed in full Indian regalia and said the famous words, "I won't bow. I don't know how."

There are about 35 Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans, separated by neighborhoods, made up of African-Americans. Each tribe is led by a Big Chief. During Mardi Gras and other holidays, like St. Joseph's Day, the tribes can be seen on the streets, asserting their status as the tribe with the best suits, songs and dances. It's a form of cultural practice and tradition that's been ongoing since at least the mid-19th century.

"To mask Indian" is a commitment - it takes thousands of hours to sew a new suit. The creations are annual works of art - sculptures of resplendent feathers and beaded workmanship in eye-dazzling colors.

For years people have been earning profits from the pictures they take of the Mardi Gras Indians. Photographers sell their photos in books, at festivals and in galleries but the Indians themselves haven't always seen earnings, even though they invest thousands of hours and dollars into a single suit.

We are helping Mardi Gras Indians gain the same copyright protection as other artists, by enforce their rights in their suits -- their works of art. Once the suits are registered for copyright, the Indians are in a good position to negotiate.

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