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Mardi Gras Indians Tout Generations-Old Traditions

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Today is Mardi Gras, and people all over the world are celebrating with decadent meals, carnivals and parades.

And New Orleans is at the heart of the party. Every year, millions of people crowd the streets of the Big Easy for the event. But in the communities away from the madness and merriment of Bourbon Street, self-described tribes of Mardi Gras Indians have been celebrating with their own unique traditions for generations. The groups' importance to the local black community was strengthened during the decades when African-Americans were excluded from the city's official Mardi Gras celebrations.

The Mardi Gras Indians have a rich history that dates back to slavery. Native Americans often helped escaped slaves navigate their way to freedom and sometimes even took the slaves into their own communities.

The outfits of the Mardi Gras Indian groups, who call themselves "tribes," are inspired by Native American ceremonial regalia. Members call these costumes "suits," and it can take up to a year to create the intricate designs out of thousands of sequins, beads and pounds of feathers.

These days, the "tribes" still draw members from black neighborhoods in and around New Orleans, and they parade through the streets of their own respective neighborhoods for Mardi Gras: Singing, playing the drums and staging mock battles in which the "tribes" try to outdo each other with their performances.

In the past, Mardi Gras Indians have had conflict with the New Orleans Police Department which, the tribes say, does not understand their traditions. However, the police and the tribes were recently able to reach an agreement that they hope will let the good times roll for another year.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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