Precisely how Mardi Gras Indian culture developed is a thorny question, one that is often wrapped up in the individual memory and beliefs of a particular Indian — often in stories retold in the culture’s oral tradition. But this much is known and documented in contemporary accounts of Carnivals past: In the early 20th century, the Indian tradition was usually only mentioned in press accounts when something went wrong. For example, an article in The Times-Picayune’s Ash Wednesday paper of 1923 recounts two Indians getting into a humbug and shots ringing out. There are mentions of African-Americans dressing as Indians in 1885 press accounts; however, the writer of the articles apparently conflated the New Orleans masking tradition with the Wild West shows that had played in the city that year. It’s a historical mash-up that makes many Mardi Gras Indians bristle. In Indian circles, the tradition is believed to be much older than that, and there is certainly evidence for this point of view. For example, in 1781, the Spanish colonial authority banned Africans from wearing feathers. And a 1735 pen-and-ink drawing hanging in the Cabildo called “The Savages of New Orleans” depicts Africans living among Indians. Whatever its origins, the Mardi Gras Indians are central to the celebration of Mardi Gras at the grass-roots, neighborhood level. To those who organize their Fat Tuesday plans around following tribes across the city, they are nothing less than the soul of Carnival.