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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Le Nain Rouge racist? the origins of Detroit's newest celebration

This Sunday, hundreds of Detroiters will participate in the second annual Marche du Nain Rouge. It is based on a mythical, evil creature known as Le Nain Rouge or Red Dwarf that inhabits the city. The supposed purpose of this parade is to appease this creature as spring approaches.

Anyone and everyone is encouraged to join in this Mardi Gras, Carnival style parade. The crazier the attire, the better. This year's march includes the Detroit Party Marching Band and non-motorized chariots. It starts at the corner of Forest and 3rd, just south of Wayne State. It concludes at Cass Park.

Marche du Nain Rouge: La Marche du Nain Rouge is an annual Detroit tradition that purportedly dates back to shortly after the city’s founding by the French in 1701. Annually held on the Sunday closest to the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, it is parade and street theater similar in sensibility to Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations. However the impetus for La Marche is different.
La Marche drives Le Nain Rouge (The Red Dwarf) out of Detroit, preventing its evil spirit from plaguing the people of the city for the rest of the year. By forcing Le Nain Rouge from the city (and into the spirit plane), Le Nain is banished, transforming Detroiters’ fears and doubts into the hopes of new life and the coming Spring season.

It seems like a great tradition has been revived but the parade has been viewed with suspicion by some in Detroit political activist circles.The irony of celebrating a bunch of "white" people (French colonists) running a "red man" (Le Nain Rouge) off his land is, at the very least, odd.

To compound the matter, the parade takes place in Midtown (other wise known as the Cass Corridor to hardcore Detroiters). It is a neighborhood that is experiencing an economic revival. Major employers in the area are offering employees incentives to move there. It is part of a master plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

But revitalization to some is gentrification to others. And the vast majority of parade participants are part of the growing white population in Detroit. Hmmm......

Looking at things this way could easily make one question the parade. That is, if the history of the Le Nain Rouge Parade was accurate.

One of the organizers of the celebration, on the condition anonymity, admitted to detroitblank that the story of French settlers holding a parade is a complete fabrication. In other words, there never was a parade. Notice the use of the word "purportedly" on their site.

However, that does not mean the parade has no historical basis. Accounts of Le Nain Rouge can be traced to the Ottawa tribe that lived near Detroit. The tribe did not live near the banks of the Detroit River because they believed there was an entity, similar to the description of Le Nain Rouge. It probably made Cadillac's (Detroit's founder) task of constructing a fort easier. No locals crying NIMBY (not in my back yard).

Jay Shem of the Little River Band of Ottawas says the tribe recognized such creatures. In their language, the creatures like Le Nain Rouge are called "pukwujie." The entities or spirits live near rivers. If one is discovered, the tribe will hold an annual appeasement ritual.

Sunday's parade may be honoring a fake French tradition, but honors (without realizing it) an Ottawa tradition.

And if local bands of Ottawas recognized the entity that became known as the Le Nain Rouge, any arguments about the racial overtones of the modern celebration are mute.

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