I like to think that I am reasonably well informed, better than the average bear at least, about religious events and news in this country; but I had never heard of St. Joseph's Day as practiced in New Orleans nor the incident ten years ago today.
You can read about the tragic events in the article linked. I am more interested in getting into the background of the situation.
On the surface St. Joseph's day is the commemoration of Joseph husband of Mary in Catholic tradition. Popular with Italian, Spanish, and Filipino Catholics in particular. The celebration came to be a major event in New Orleans when it became a major point of entry for Sicilians.
The exact origins of the Mardi Gras Indians is a little more obscure. During the 1740s New Orleans was a major center of African American music and dance. From around this time until the Civil War African American and Native cultures became intertwined in the area due the large numbers of runaway slaves who found shelter among the Indian tribes of the region. In 1885 a group of about 50 Plains Indians marched through New Orleans in native dress. That same year the first Mardi Gras Indian gang was formed.
Today there are about 35 "tribes" or "gangs" of African American Mardi Gras tribes in New Orleans. They are loosely affiliated into two organization, Uptown Indians and Downtown Indians. Mardi Gras Indian suits cost thousands of dollars in materials alone and can weigh upwards of one hundred pounds. A suit usually takes between six to nine months to plan and complete. Each Indian designs and creates his own suit; elaborate bead patches depict meaningful and symbolic scenes.Beads, feathers, and sequins are integral parts of a Mardi Gras Indian suit. Uptown New Orleans tribes tend to have more sculptural and abstract African-inspired suits; downtown tribes have more pictorial suits with heavy Native American influences.
Processions are heraleded by scouts that run a few blocks ahead to watch for trouble, next comes the First Flag displaying the gangs colors. The group follows. Notably in the group are the Big Chief, who directs the gang and decides where to go and who to meet, and the Wildman, who dances near the Big Chief and carries a symbolic weapon. Percussionists bring up the rear.During the march, the Indians dance and sing traditional songs particular to their gang. They use hodgepodge languages loosely based on different African dialects. The Big Chief decides where the gang will parade; the parade route is different each time. When two tribes come across each other, they either pass by or meet for a symbolic fight. Each tribe lines up and the Big Chiefs taunt each other about their suits and their tribes. The drum beats of the two tribes intertwine, and the face off is complete. Both tribes continue on their way
Historically the tribes were often in more violent conflict. Dances were a time to settle grudges. Participants were often masked and used the confusion to strike out at enemies, carrying guns and knives. Many dances ended in bloodshed and death. This changed in the 1960s under the leadership Allison Montana, called "Chief of Chiefs", who swore he would make the groups fight with needle and thread rather than guns and knives. Since the dances have more often been about competition, costume, and showmanship. Nevertheless violence would still occasionally erupt. The secretive and unpredictable nature of the dances often led to conflicts with authorities, rightly or wrongly.
The violent period of the dances is immortalized in James Sugar Boy Crawfor's song, "Jock O Mo."
In the last few years the city of New Orleans have embraced the Dancers and even include them in tourism materials.
Still not sure why St. Joseph's Day and the Sunday before are such important days to them, other than the holidays association with the city.