While based on local families expressing their blended Native and African legacies, the development of the Mardi Gras Indian cultural system was also shaped by the stereotyped notion of the “American Indian.” Throughout the nineteenth century, as the United States expanded westward across the continent, theatrical and musical productions increasingly incorporated stereotypes of Native Americans, sometimes appearing in Wild West shows. This fell within a larger pattern of minstrelsy, a form of entertainment based on ethnic caricatures especially popular at that time. This chapter examines how minstrelsy, including the Wild West shows, influenced local enactments of “Indianness” in New Orleans. Conventional historiography has often seen the Wild West shows as the point of origin for Mardi Gras Indian traditions. This historical axiom is dispelled, however, and the nineteenth century entertainment industry is instead revealed as a phenomenon which reinforced previously existing cultural practices.
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