Mardi Gras Indians - New Orleans, Louisiana

On Indian Sunday (the Sunday before the feast of St. Joseph) night, "tribes" from around the city gather on a street corner and face off for friendly -- and sometimes heated -- encounters to determine who will be the most respected "chief." Each tribe is expected to have their costumes ready by Mardi Gras and so the term "Mardi Gras Indians" has stuck.

The history of the event has its origins in antebellum Louisiana when Native American tribes assisted in slave revolts and supported slaves escaping to freedom. Indian bloodlines became mixed in the mashup of ancestries that became Creole lineage and tribal culture found its way into multi-ethnic social groups. In the late 19th century, “Indian Sunday” became an annual event for descendants to honor and celebrate their Indian ancestry and pay respect to the natives who helped to free slaves. But clashes between tribes could be extremely violent as they embraced tribal warfare tactics. Today, the men who all serve to protect the chief mostly function as symbols of the tradition’s past. Still, encounters are fierce and the challenge to be the more revered chief doesn’t always end amicably.

Just before sundown, we left the 7th Ward with the Creole Hunters tribe and walked uptown, where all the tribes were gathering. With the exception of stopping moving traffic at each crossing, the march was mostly uneventful. But when we turned our final corner, the energy radically changed. Drumming and shouting filled the air, and the streetlights poured down on hordes of colorful dancers. Spectators gathered on the sides to watch as chiefs went face to face, refusing to back down from one another, yelling out phrases of intimidation. Almost as soon as we arrived a fight broke out and we saw one chief spitting blood out of his mouth. But with cops on hand and older chiefs mediating, the skirmish subsided and the party began.

It was a night of color and celebration. The men and women who spend an entire year on their costumes are the reason we were able to take such beautiful images.