'Big Chiefs' Continue Mardi Gras Indian Tradition

Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison i i

Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison marches during Mardi Gras in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood. Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison

Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison marches during Mardi Gras in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Harrison faces off against a fellow reveler. i i

Harrison, all swords and plumage, faces off with the lead in his signal drum corps. hide caption

itoggle caption
Harrison faces off against a fellow reveler.

Harrison, all swords and plumage, faces off with the lead in his signal drum corps.

In neighborhoods throughout New Orleans, black men don Indian costumes they worked on all year — suits they carefully stitch and bead by hand.

The history of this tradition is as varied and mysterious as the city of New Orleans. There are many accounts, but the most widely accepted is that the ritual dates back to the days of slavery when Native Americans sheltered runaway slaves.

Michele Norris talks with some of the "Big Chiefs," who, like much of the city, have mixed feelings about celebrating Mardi Gras just months after Hurricane Katrina took its devastating toll.

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