Mardi Gras Indians

One of the most interesting linguistic phenomena in New Orleans is that of the chanting of the Mardi Gras Indians. For centuries, African Americans have recognized and honored an indigenous element of their ancestry by parading as Mardi Gras Indians. Dozens of groups (often known as tribes) with hierarchical memberships parade the streets of New Orleans on set dates several times a year (notably, Mardi Gras day and St. Joseph’s night). Typically a tribe consists of a Big Chief, the Big Chief’s queen, a wild man, a flag boy, and a spy boy, though some tribes may be missing one or more of these positions, and some may have additional subsidiary chiefs and queens as well. When one tribe encounters another, they engage in a ritual exchange. Once violent, today these exchanges are displays of visual and verbal acuity. Most notable in these exchanges is the use of words of indeterminate origin, most famously “Jackimo Fina Ne” (as made famous by the song “Iko Iko”) and “Tuway packyway” (note that there is no generally-accepted way to spell these terms and various different idiosyncratic orthographies have been used) the use of which likely dates to the origins of the tradition. Over the years, various hypotheses have been put forward, with some attributing at least some of the words variously to Mobilian Jargon (Drechsel 1997: 249), to African languages, to French (Hinshaw 2009). Given the potential for mutations in pronunciation over time, particularly by non-speakers of the source languages, it may be impossible to conclusively determine the origins of these words — if, indeed, they are not pure invention . It is quite possible that the mysterious words used by Mardi Gras Indians may be a mix of words from various sources and as such represent the culmination of Louisiana’s rich linguistic history.