Creole Copyright

Some Mardi Gras Indians literally own their looks

| November-December 2010

  • Creole Copyright Image
    Alfred Doucette, Big Chief of the Flaming Arrows tribe of Mardi Gras Indians
    REUTERS / David Rae Morris

  • Creole Copyright Image

Ornately costumed “Indians” are icons of New Orleans’ boisterous Mardi Gras celebrations. Despite their moniker, Mardi Gras Indians are largely African Americans, and for years their annual tradition has been a source of tension because many of them impoverish themselves to make their elaborate suits while photographers shoot them and sell their pictures. Indians fear that the photographers are profiting from their work, and to combat this, some of them are copyrighting their suits.

Howard Miller, Big Chief of the Creole Wild West and president of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, this spring became the first to secure such a copyright.

 “Indian culture was never, ever meant to make any money,” he told the New York Times in March, but he criticized its exploitation by others. “We have a beef with anybody who takes us for granted.”

Miller started the process of registering his copyright with lawyer Ashlye M. Keaton earlier this year, but the idea for copyright protection had been floating around since 2005. Keaton developed the argument that the suits are art and, as such, subject to protection.

“Indian suits are not worn to protect them from the environment; they’re worn ceremonially,” she says. “They’re sculptures that are sewn onto canvas.”

Since Miller’s suit was copyrighted, 10 more Mardi Gras Indians have applied to copyright their suits. “The fact that the suits are subject to registration adds value for many opportunities,” such as artist grants, Keaton says.