skull and bone gang
my favorite part of my first mardi gras day was the very beginning. i had set my clock for about 5am, but i didn’t make it up until closer to 5:30. still pretty early, but not early enough. by the time i had showered, bundled up in my mardi gras uniform (two pairs of long johns under my pants, a thermal top under my shirt and sweater, my down coat, a scarf, and some gloves), heated up my breakfast, and headed out alone into the cold, quiet streets, it was already past 6am, and i was already too late to catch the mardi gras indians.
i had been informed that at least one tribe would be setting out from tremé’s backstreet cultural museum at 6am, and i was hoping to knock seeing indians off my mardi gras to-do list right from the get-go. as it turned out, even if i had been on time i would have missed them; as i later discovered, they actually left around 5:30. i guess next year they’ll have the museum tell people 5:30am and actually leave at 5. hmph.
any-hoo…i was none the wiser, so i sat there on a bench across the street from the museum with a few other early-rising lookee-loos waiting for a ship that had already sailed. what did emerge from the museum on my watch was not the feathered spectacle i was expecting but a more macabre ensemble. right in front of me, wearing bulbous papier mâché skulls, skeleton painted clothing, and white leather butcher aprons, was the bone gang, the tale of which i’d once heard spoken of like the myth of bloody mary or the candyman.
“i heard they might knock on your door on mardi gras morning and tell you you’re next.”
“are you serious? how do they choose you?”
“i don’t know, but it sounds scary.”
well, i wasn’t scared; i was thrilled! the myth was real! the rest of the early birds and i were lucky enough to follow the bone gang on their mardi gras morning pilgrimage. one member walked on stilts and had dreds hanging out behind his mask, lending him a menacing predator-like appearance. others carried animal bones or even the whole animal foot. they used these to bang on doors or tambourines while the leader breached the calm of the morning by bellowing refrains like:
“skull and bone gang!”
“north side skull!”
“mardi gras morning!”
“get up out the bed!”
“bone gang comin’!”
“it’s too late!”
not to mention a creepy brrr-r-r-r-aaahh sound and a crow-like shriek that gave me the chills.
they stalled traffic, menaced drivers, banged on doors, and delighted the children of the tremé neighborhood, many of whom answered their door expectantly, showing me that the bone gang was as much a part of their childhood repertoire as santa claus or the easter bunny. nonetheless, i instinctively kept behind them a little bit, hoping not to call any attention to myself for fear of being one of the few recipients singled out for their one trademark mardi gras tiding that might actually have made me nervous:
the following is an excellent piece on the fascinating (and, for me at least, unexpectedly deep-rooted) historical significance of the skull and bone gang. the text, along with excellent accompanying photographs, can be found here: http://www.charlessilver.com/signsoflife.html. i’ve pasted the text below because i think it’s terribly interesting and because i know some of you lazy lima beans won’t bother following the link!
SIGNS OF LIFE: NEW PHOTOGRAPHS FROM NEW ORLEANS
by Charles Silver
An amended exhibition text from the Carnaval Noir exhibit curated by Judy Boudreaux at McKenna Musuem of African American Art, 2003 Carondolet Street, New Orleans:
Shadows and Spirits: The North Side Skull and Bones Gang
SKULL AND BONE GANGS
“Too late … it’s too late,” the Bone Gang warns us that death is unpredictable yet inevitable, so live right today, and they remind us to enjoy today. “Scared straight” describes the frightening role of the Bone Men since 1819, welcoming in Carnival’s dawn. From cemeteries they rise to preserve the “oldest” Indian tradition in New Orleans.
Every year in New Orleans the “Skeletons” are the first to kick-off Mardi Gras Day customs and traditions. They are known for taking to the streets before sunrise beating drums and shouting chants to wake up Carnival.
Best known of all, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang is a kind of secret society. Its living oral traditions were most recently passed down to “Big Arthur” then to Big Chief Bone Man Al Morris and to Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes. Donning handcrafted over-sized skulls and skeleton suits, wearing butcher’s aprons and carrying freshly butchered gigantic animal bones, they can be seen waking the community in the old Treme neighborhood.
Very early on the morning of Mardi Gras Day with tambourines, drums and shouts of “Skull and Bones!,” “Bone Gang’s here!” and other chants and alarms that echo down the empty streets, the Bone Men make their way through the old neighborhoods. They run onto porches and using gigantic ham bones they knock on doors and go into homes where they yell “Wake Up! You Next!” and can be seen challenging sleepy children: “Did you do your homework? Don’t Lie to me, I’ll know. If you don’t do your homework you’re going to see me again, tonight.”
Similarly dressed Skull and Bone gangs can be found parading through the streets during Carnival celebrations throughout the Caribbean, Central America, the West Indies and Africa.
Some theorize that like Carnival, the Skull and Bone gangs originated in Europe in the fifteenth century. Skeletons appeared as apparitions and as embodiments of the concept of ‘memento mori’ (“remember that you are mortal,” “remember you will die”) during Carnival and Lent. Others say that the spiritual presence of the Skeletons echoes the calacas of Indigenous Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes (Day of the Dead) and Haitian Voudun’s Barron Samedi (loa of death-like Orisha of Santeria or The God of Christianity).
Not only are they often spotted parading with the Mardi Gras Indians, they also maintain a similar hierarchy within their organizations. Skull and Bone gangs just like the Mardi Gras Indians have a chief, a second chief, a spy boy, a flag boy and a wild man. There are other similarities as well. Such ancient rituals preserve customs and traditions from generation to generation. They also illustrate the complexity of African and Indigenous cultural survival amidst New World Colonial Creolization.
The acting Big Chief of The North Side Skull and Bones Gang, Big Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, described his Mardi Gras preparations in this excerpt from an article SACRED GROUND by David Winkler-Schmit, from the Gambit Weekly that appeared during Carnival, 2008.
For many New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is a neighborhood cultural celebration. In the wake of Katrina, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods — Treme — clings to its traditions against a tide of change.
Early in the morning, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes begins his Fat Tuesday preparations to march with the North Side Skull and Bones Gang.
On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Indians converge on Claiborne Avenue under the I-10 overpass. For Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.
“We’ll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets,” Barnes says. “Mardi Gras is the one day we do that.”