Detroit's Marche du Nain Rouge

The Nain Rouge or otherwise known as the “red devil of Detroit” has been a harbinger of doom since the time of Detroit’s founder.


March of the Nain Rouge – “300th Anniversary”

DATE: Sunday March 21, 2010. 3:00 PM.

START – Third Bar. Forest and Third Street.

END – Cass Park

On March 21st, 2010, three hundred years since the first purported Marche, Detroiters have a once in a lifetime opportunity to come together again to revive an important tradition, ridding Detroit of its evil spirit (Le Nain Rouge), and set the city on a brighter course for a better future.

Historical Background

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.

Tradition holds that a citizen of Detroit dresses up as Le Nain Rouge, temporarily embodying its spirit, wearing a mask to conceal identity. As Le Nain Rouge, this person accepts responsibility for leading people through the streets of Detroit to La Marche’s final destination.

Le Nain Rouge is followed by a contingent of twelve Detroiters, known as La Bande du Nains. La Bande du Nains is made up of a man, a woman and a child who claim heritage in each of the world’s historic continents – Africa, America, Asia, and Europe. La Bande du Nains carry sticks, canes, pots and pans, dress in 18th Century garb and represent the original Detroiters who took the initiative to drive Le Nain out of Detroit.

Following Le Nain and La Bande du Nains is a group of musicians. The ensemble positions itself as a transition between the 13 figures at the head of La Marche and the rest of the parade’s participants. The music played during La Marche has evolved and infused many traditions from the people of Detroit. Most recently the music and spirit of the band is akin to that of a jazz funeral march, featuring drums and horns.

The rest of La Marche follows the musicians’ lead, and is comprised of individuals on foot and on decorated floats. Participants dress up in a wide range of costume, from historical to political figures, from supernatural creatures to abstracted ideas. Creative expression and abandoned inhibition is flaunted. Costumes relate to assuming a new persona so that one can participate in banishing Le Nain Rouge without retribution.

La Marche du Nain Rouge begins inland and follows a north to south route, tracing the historic French ribbon farms toward the river. Although early versions of the La Marche drove Le Nain into the river, Cass Park was chosen as a new location in the 19th Century, and a bonfire was favored as a way to banish Le Nain (since water is ineffective).

At the bonfire Le Nain is transformed into a paper Mache effigy – after ducking behind a curtain – and is ceremonially flung into the fire, representing the end of Le Nain’s hold on Detroit. Participants are also encouraged to make their own Petits Nains to throw into the fire as well, representing the cleansing of regret, fear and ill will from the soul, and a moment of catharsis, purification, rebirth and renewal.

Historical Basis

Le Nain Rouge (the Red Dwarf) is a malevolent spirit that has cursed generations of Detroiters. It often appears as an impish dwarf, with gnarled red features, glowing eyes, rotting teeth and matted fur. Le Nain’s appearance seems to foretell the misfortune of whoever sees it, or more generally the misfortune of the city as a whole.

The first recorded sighting of Le Nain Rouge occurred when Detroit founder Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac took a stroll with his wife through the Royal Garden just outside Fort Pontchartrain’s walls. Le Nain crossed Cadillac’s path, shrieking at Cadillac as if to confront him. In response Cadillac took his cane to Le Nain and drove it off. As Le Nain retreated, it cursed Cadillac. There have been numerous sightings since.

After the incident, Cadillac’s luck soon took a turn for the worse. A political rival of Cadillac convinced the French Government to indict him on charges of illegal trafficking. This resulted in Cadillac’s removal from power and imprisonment. And even though his name was eventually cleared, Cadillac’s fortunes were never the same. He died in France still trying to establish his land claims in Detroit.

Purported First Marche

Sunday March 23, 1710, after Le Nain’s curse of Cadillac, citizens of Fort Pontchartrain determined to drive out the evil spirit before it could curse them as well. The first Marche was organized near Sainte Anne’s church and processed along rues Saint Joseph, Saint Jacques, Sainte Anne, and Saint Louis, then went to the Jardin du Roy (Royal Garden), then processed to the river.

Religious/Cultural Connection

While the ritual of La Marche harkens back to the French — and was therefore incorporated into the Catholic tradition, presaging the Easter rebirth – over time, it has been adopted by Detroiters of varied origins and faiths. In fact, it was one of the first events to bring together Jews and gentiles, merchants and escaped slaves, children and elders who all shared a common hope: to rid the city of Le Nain’s evil spirit. Over time, Detroiters assembled in an unprecedented show of unity to drive out the little devil. Some feared chaos and conflict. But much to the contrary, a spirit of harmony prevailed as participants come together in celebration of renewal. La Marche is recognized throughout the city as the one day a year when every man, woman and child sets aside their differences to celebrate their individuality, fraternity and common destiny.