On Sunday, Detroiters will once again don red-and-black costumes, gather in the historic Cass Corridor, and endure the taunts of the legendary Nain Rouge, or "Red Dwarf," before chasing him out of the city.
If all of this sounds foreign to you, then it's probably time for a Nain explainer. Here are some fast facts about this weekend's event, which celebrates a decade this year:
In some promotional materials in previous years, the Marche du Nain Rouge organizers said the tradition has been going on uninterrupted in Detroit "supposedly, for 300 years."
They jest. Actually, the parade was formed by then-WSU law school students Francis Grunow and Joe Uhl in 2009, who wanted to create a Detroit-style take on the Mardis Gras tradition, noting how the festival took on a new meaning for New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They picked the Sunday after the vernal equinox as the date of the inaugural Marche, making it a springtime event and allowing some space on the calendar following Mardis Gras and St. Patrick's Day. Apparently plenty of other metro Detroiters wanted the same thing; the idea took off, and the event now draws a crowd of thousands, complete with elaborate floats, New Orleans-style marching bands, dancers, and more.
The parade is relatively new, but the tale of the Nain Rouge is indeed old.
The legend of the Nain Rouge is said to go back to 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Detroit. The short version of the tale is that Cadillac was attacked by the feared "Red Dwarf," who then cursed Cadillac and the city. The truth is actually a bit more complicated, outlined in a 2016 Metro Times cover story.
The first printed reference to the Nain doesn't appear until Legends of Le Détroit by Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, published in 1883 — some 180 years after Cadillac's alleged encounter. In Hamlin's version, a fortune teller tells Cadillac he will found a great city, but warns that if he continues to sell brandy to the Native American tribes — a lucrative business, but one contrary to the advice of the Jesuits — it would eventually lead to bloodshed, and spell ruin for him and his city. Cadillac is warned to "appease the Nain Rouge," or the "demon of the strait," should it ever appear. Later, while walking along the Detroit River, Cadillac encounters the Nain — which has gleaming eyes and sharp teeth. Cadillac ignores the fortune teller's advice, and whacks the creature with his cane — forever cursing Detroit.
In the Marche du Nain Rouge version of the story, the Nain is presented not as a dwarf, but as a full-grown adult-sized demon-like figure. The Nain appears at the beginning of the parade route and taunts the crowd, usually making jokes about current events or pop culture. The revelers then chase the Nain down the Cass Corridor to the steps of the Masonic Temple, where the Nain taunts the crowd some more; everyone then boos at the Nain before it disappears until next year. After-parties are usually held around the Cass Corridor, including the Masonic Temple.
The legend of the Nain Rouge could be even older than Detroit's French settlers.
Settlers brought the French folkloric tradition of "lutins," or small, mischievous, shape-shifting creatures, to the New World. Certainly, the Nain could have its origins in that tradition. But it could also be older: Algonquian tribes have a folkloric tradition of mischievous, shapeshifting tricksters such as Nanabozho. A painting found in an Ontario cave even depicts Nanabozho as a red rabbit.
Kate Grandjean, an assistant professor at Wellesley College who specializes in early American and Native American history, previously told MT that the idea that the Nain Rouge could share both French and Native American traditions is not far-fetched, given the fact that the French settlers integrated with native tribes. "It's not outlandish or crazy to think that the traditions of different people would have somehow come down through time in a blended way," she told MT. Since storytelling was largely an oral tradition, no written record to prove this has been uncovered — yet.
The Marche features a faction of pro-Nain supporters.
You can usually find them holding signs that say things like "Stop Nain Shame" and "Be Nice 2 Nain." They're led by John E.L. Tenney, a paranormal researcher who made a name for himself for his work on the '90s TV show Unsolved Mysteries. They believe the modern-day telling of the Marche du Nain Rouge is antithetical to the original tale — the fortune teller warned Cadillac to appease the Nain Rouge, and now the Marche du Nain Rouge is perpetuating the curse by continuing to treat the Nain like Cadillac did. More information can be found at Tenney's website, nainrouge.weirdlectures.com, including the full version of Hamlin's original tale.
"Nain" is actually supposed to be pronounced more like "nan."
Most Detroiters seem to pronounce it like rhyming with "pain." (Chalk it up to another one of the many French words we butcher around here!) A French historian explained it to us at a previous Marche: "It's a fun event. It's not historically accurate at all, but it's a fun event."
From March 18 thru March 24, local businesses will offer deals and specials as part of a weeklong "Fete du Nain."
Spots like Avalon International Breads, Detroit Shipping Co., Founder's Detroit, Union Street, and others will be offering deals all week or hosting special events on the day of the Marche du Nain Rouge; see marchedunainrouge.com for the full list of participating businesses.
The Marche du Nain Rouge begins at noon on the corner of Second and Canfield Street (across from Traffic Jam & Snug); marchedunainrouge.com. Event is free and open to the public.
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