On Mardi Gras day at 5 a.m., The North Side Skull and Bone Gang leaves the Backstreet Cultural Museum and goes door to door, waking up the neighborhood children and spreading a message of peace. This is a 200-year old tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes who dons the iconic antler helmet celebrated his 20th year with the krewe in 2019. The tradition dates all the way back back to 1819. Its roots trace back to African spirituality, but the gang views its role in New Orleans as the “literal meaning of carnival, the shedding of flesh.”
Historical records show for generations, skeletons and Mardi Gras Indians both roamed the streets of African-American communities in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day, part of community-masking customs that centered more on neighborhoods than on the grand pageantry of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue.
Treme neighbors, and visitors who get up early enough to see the gang topped with massive paper skulls or frightening headpieces made of bone, the North Side gang tromping through the streets of old Treme and the 7th Ward, calling out their catchphrase, “You Next!” alternated with an occasional “The End is Near” as they beat drums and dance in the street.
I attended this event as they marched through the Treme neighborhood. One of the most impressive sites was watching the gang prepare and gather on the museum steps before leaving to wake up the neighbors. I did wonder how the children reacted if they were awoken by these skeleton masked people.
It’s a tradition to see that isn’t so crowded because it starts so early in the morning and most people are preparing for a long day of parties and Mardi Gras celebrations across the city. It is a truly special Mardi Gras tradition and all visitors are welcome to participate in the march.