Academic journal article Western Folklore

Marketing Mardi Gras: Heritage Tourism in Rural Acadiana

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Marketing Mardi Gras: Heritage Tourism in Rural Acadiana

Article excerpt

Cultural tourism in Acadiana has generally lagged behind better-known parts of the state.1 Barry Ancelet commented a decade ago that New Orleans and plantation country have dominated Louisiana tourism, but "Cajun country just next door has only recently begun to gear up its tourism potential" (Ancelet 1992, 256) .Thus, in the past, Mardi Gras promotions centered mainly on New Orleans' public parades, while other Mardi Gras traditions maintained lower tourism profiles.

Mardi Gras is, in fact, big business for Louisiana's tourism industry. As the state's signature festival, Mardi Gras has long been an important tourist attraction and source of income. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, the festival's statewide economic impact exceeds a billion dollars a year (January 7, 2003). New Orleans accounts for much of this intake, but recent years have seen a shift in Mardi Gras promotion and tourism. Acadiana's rural counrs de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras runs) now offer visitors an alternative to big-city parades, and the region has seen a steady rise in country Mardi Gras tourism over the last two decades.

Flyers, glossy brochures, web sites, and printed visitor guides all seek to attract-and to various degrees educate-a broad audience. Some materials are produced by state or parish tourism offices, others by travel agents, journalists, festival promoters, chambers of commerce, and a community college. Mardi Gras tourism has been a financial boon to small towns in Acadiana. Many French Louisianians feel that tourism has also helped stimulate local interest in the country Mardi Gras and improved its public image. On the other hand, Shane Bernard suggests that some Cajuns have reacted to the "incursion" of tourists by withdrawing from local Mardi Gras festivities (2003).

Mardi Gras, like all traditional festivals, is dynamic as well as conservative (Toelken 1996). Counrs de Mardi Gras are elastic, constantly adapting to new circumstances, and tourism is just one such circumstance. However, the impetus for tourism often comes from town officials and entrepreneurs, not Mardi Gras maskers and their captains. As tourism introduces Mardi Gras runs to a new audience, issues of public presentation, cultural conservation, and guardianship of tradition inevitably surface (Ware 2003). These questions, as Frank de Garo notes, are "much on people's minds these days and are concerns not only of scholars" (1991:1-2). Tourism authorities, municipal officials, community organizers, and Mardi Gras participants all work to find a balance between promoting community-based courin and overwhelming them.

This essay explores the possibilities and tensions between tourism and Mardi Gras runs, and how the tradition is being redefined for the tourist market. I first look at how tourism literature constructs a distinctive image for the rural Mardi Gras by contrasting it to the New Orleans Carnival, its main competitor. Next, I turn to the development of Mardi Gras tourism in two Acadiana towns, Eunice and Iota. In both places, organizers fashion specific identities and tourism niches by promoting selected aspects of their local courirs. Often, they oppose their own events not only to urban parades, but to other Cajun runs.

Cultural tourism has played an important part in my own involvement with the country Mardi Gras tradition. I was first introduced to the celebration in 1988 as a graduate folklore student visiting the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. When the Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival, then entering its second year, received grant funding to enhance cultural interpretation, I was hired to conduct fieldwork on Acadia Parish Mardi Gras traditions, write text for a festival guide, and program narrative stage sessions. Fifteen years later, I still make frequent fieldwork visits to Acadiana, follow rural Mardi Gras runs each year, and collaborate with Cajun Mardi Gras participants on public programs. Many of my interviews over the years have touched on dilemmas of public representation. I've heard a range of attitudes voiced about Mardi Gras tourism, and my own feelings are often ambivalent. In this essay, I draw on interviews with Mardi Gras captains, riders, and tourism presenters, from 1988 to the present.


On the prairies of French Louisiana, Mardi Gras holds several meanings. It refers not only to the day before Ash Wednesday, but to the local tradition of "running" Mardi Gras. Groups of costumed riders on horseback or in trucks roam country neighborhoods and small towns, stopping at homes and businesses along their routes. If a homeowner grants permission to visit, the maskers dismount to sing, dance, clown and play pranks. Before leaving, they beg for live or frozen chickens, rice, sausage, and money, and then invite their hosts to share a gumbo that evening. Unmasked leaders (capitaines) keep the celebrants in line, making sure they offer an entertaining show without seriously offending their hosts or damaging their property. An individual masker is called a Mardi Gras: as a group they are les Mardi Gras or, in English, the Mardi Gras (pronouncing the "s.") A community run is also commonly referred to simply as Mardi Gras, as in "the Eunice Mardi Gras."

Twenty or more Mardi Gras runs may take place in a given year, but the celebrations take very different shape in different communities. Each community negotiates its own sense of tradition, designating certain aspects as essential. Some runs still take place on horses, while others have made the transition to truck-drawn trailers or "wagons." (In reality, even horseback courirs usually include a wagon for non-equestrians.) In some community courirs, members still sing their chanson de Mardi Gras for householders at each stop; in others, a band of musicians or a recording has taken over this performance. Many runs allow only male riders and captains, but a few communities include women and men together, or stage separate women's courirs. Children's Mardi Gras runs, though not a new concept, are increasingly popular on the weekend before Mardi Gras.

One thing that has not changed in recent years is the custom of racially segregated Mardi Gras runs. Both Cajuns and Afro-French Creoles in Acadiana's prairie parishes run Mardi Gras, but virtually never together (Spitzer 1986, Ancelet 1999) .2 Creole runs have generally received less scholarly and public attention than Cajun runs, perhaps because they are typically smaller, less formally organized, less publicized, and more sporadic than many Cajun runs.3 As Spitzer (1986) and Sexton (1999) have pointed out, many rural Creole neighborhoods have emptied out as men move to Lake Charles and other cities for jobs, and thus local runs disappear or are transplanted to larger cities. The handful of Creole runs that do still take place are relatively private, communitycentered events, and rarely seek media or tourist attention. Mardi Gras tourism literature, which seems to target a largely white audience, often lists only the better-known Cajun Mardi Gras runs. (A brochure aimed at African American visitors to Lafayette and Lake Charles mentions Mardi Gras parades but no Mardi Gras runs.) In this essay, then, I discuss Mardi Gras tourism in terms of Caiun events.

Many Cajuns, marketers, and tourists now associate Mardi Gras runs exclusively with Cajun culture, in what Sexton calls the "Cajunization" Of Mardi Gras (1999). Running Mardi Gras connotes Cajun identity, although for some participants seeking to "express their 'Cajunness'" once a year (Bernard 2003:149-150), this may be largely a symbolic ethnicity. Moreover, running Mardi Gras represents a specifically regional way of life: prairie Cajunness. Mardi Gras tourism in Acadiana, then, is closely entwined with efforts to define, revitalize, and interpret traditional culture.

The emergence of Mardi Gras courirs as symbols of ethnic pride, however, is recent (Ware 1994, Sexton 1999, Ware 2003). For much of the twentieth century, Cajuns striving for Americanization tended to dismiss French Louisiana culture, and Mardi Gras runs in particular, as backward and "country" (Dormon 1983, Bernard 2003). By the 1930s and 1940s, community acceptance of Mardi Gras runs-too often associated with drunkenness and fighting-had waned, and World War II suspended most surviving runs (Ancelet et al. 1989). Many, though not all, community courirs died out altogether.

The town of Mamou was the first to self-consciously refashion its Mardi Gras identity in the early 1950s. A group of local cultural activists, guided by a "deliberate sense of tradition" (Ancelet and Edmonds 1989:34), decided to revive and rehabilitate Mamou's dormant courir, making it more respectable and less dangerous than in the past. The Mamou run soon became widely-known, the first courir to draw large crowds of visitors. Still, most community runs continued to struggle for survival and community acceptance throughout the next few decades. Long-time participants in other courirs recall police turning Mardi Gras riders away from towns, and local club owners refusing to host the maskers' Mardi Gras dance (Durio 1992, Lejeune 1992).

The advent of what Nicholas Spitzer calls a "romantic cultural revival" (1986:7) began changing the public image of French Louisiana culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cajuns took new pride in their French music, language, and other traditions. Heritage tourism followed in the 1980s in the wake of two trends: a national craze for Cajun food and music, and a serious recession in the region's oil-based economy following an oil glut. Community leaders "began desperately to look around for other ideas to develop and diversification became the buzz word of the decade" (Ancelet 1992:257). Their solution was to promote their own heritage, especially music and food. Today, Mardi Gras also is an important seasonal attraction.


Advertising on local, parish, and state levels has played a crucial part in transforming the Cajun Mardi Gras into what Barbara KirshenblattGimblett calls a "destination." Places become destinations, she suggests, through the "production of difference" (1998:152). Promoters distinguish their place, or festival, from others by establishing its uniqueness. Marketing for the Cajun courir de Mardi Gras employs a few central motifs to create an identity based on apartness-from the rest of the country, from the quotidian, from modernity, and especially from New Orleans. Advertisements define the Cajun Mardi Gras against the big city Carnival, using a series of binary oppositions such as historical versus modern, personal versus impersonal, wholesome versus debauched, and authentic versus spurious or commercialized.

The most pervasive image is a tradition forgotten by time. French Louisiana as a whole is often seen as quaint, isolated by geography and culture, and in Barry Ancelet's words, "part of 'lost America'" (1992:256-257). Mardi Gras advertising builds on this sense of quaintness, stressing the courir's deep connections to a rural past. A Louisiana Office of Tourism Mardi Gras brochure characterizes the event as a kind of living history, suggesting that "in rural communities . . . 'the running of the Mardi Gras'-takes a 9 19th century flavor" as horseback riders go from farm to farm (Louisana Office of Tourism 1991). Photographs reinforce this message of an idealized pastoral setting. Most show male riders on horseback against a hazy backdrop of prairie countryside, although some present-day runs use trucks, include women, or make stops in town, and captains and riders carry cell phones.

Paradoxically, modern web sites are among the most effective disseminators of the living history image of Mardi Gras. The Louisiana State University at Eunice site offers perhaps the most comprehensive online information, with a description of the country Mardi Gras tradition and its history, annually updated photographs of a dozen community runs (including one Creole run), and a menu of Mardi Gras activities. Text explains that "Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana draws on traditions that are centuries old," and visitors are "swept up in the timeless moment: in rural Acadiana, Mardi Gras lives as much today as it did in centuries past" ( October 7, 2001).

Other promotional literature takes us much farther back in history to medieval roots. The Louisiana Official Tour Guide promises vacationers to Acadiana "tiny villages with Mardi Gras traditions dating back to the Middle Ages" (2001:107), and a Vermilionville brochure presents the contemporary Mardi Gras run as a survival of "ancient pagan fertility rites" (Vermillionville Historic Foundation 1997). To visit a country Mardi Gras run, then, is to take a step back in time, or into several different eras and places-nineteenth-century Louisiana and a more ancient, European past. Being the oldest or the most traditional Mardi Gras run becomes a point of competition among communities. The Tee MamouIota Folklife Festival stresses that the local Mardi Gras riders still sing a centuries-old song in French (Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival Association 1989), and the nearby Mamou courir is billed as the "oldest traditional Mardi Gras run" (Advocate February 25, 2003).

This retrospective process, which Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls "time travel," is hardly unique to the Cajun Mardi Gras. Helen Regis, writing about African-American jazz funerals in New Orleans, notes the "antiquification of. . . cultural practices" (Regis 2001:767) that gives modern-day performances an aura of exotic Otherness. seen as a remnant of the past, rare and valuable, the event becomes "ripe for commodification" (ibid. 767). It belongs not to today's participants, but to the past, and thus to everyone.4

A second theme in Cajun Mardi Gras tourism is the ritual, almost sacramental nature of the Mardi Gras run.5 Promoters, borrowing folklorists' descriptions, thus ground and validate practices that might otherwise be viewed as drunken disorder (Ancelet 1990, Lindahl 1996). Begging, then, is described as "ceremonial" (Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau 1991), and the custom itself is derived from a "medieval ritual," according to the LSUE website ( mardmain.htm October 7, 2001).

Advertising also accentuates the festival's carefree side, its liminal quality, and the visual impact of dozens or hundreds of multicolored masks and costumes: the run is a "wild escape from the ordinary cares of life" and a "wild, gaudy pageant" (ibid. October 7, 2001).

The country Mardi Gras run is not too wild, though. If Cajun Mardi Gras advertising depicts rural celebrations as deeply rooted rituals, it presents the urban Carnival as uncontrolled bacchanalia. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is described as "plastic hedonism" (ibid. 2001) and-in the case of French Quarter exhibitionism-"utter abandonment" ( October 7, 2001). According to the Savvy Traveler web site, "Alcohol, plastic bead necklaces, and barechested men and women make [the New Orleans] Mardi Gras look like the first stop on MTV's Spring Break Tour." Fortunately, we're told, "There is another place we can look. just west of the city, in Louisiana's Cajun country, residents have their own special way of celebrating" (ibid. 2001).-presumably far less debauched than the big city's.

Another recurring motif is that of transformation. Tourism experts point out that most people want to visit an experience, not simply a place, and Barry Ancelet observes that vacationers often visit Louisiana seeking an "exotic out-of-culture experience" (1992:256). The Cajun Mardi Gras, according to promoters, offers tourists an encounter that may change them forever. A flyer printed by the City of Eunice promises a "sight one will not soon forget!"(City of Eunice 1992). The Louisiana Office of Tourism's 2001 slogan urged visitors to "Come as you are, leave different," and its tour guide pledges "Wherever you go, we promise you'll be changed by the experience" (Louisiana Official Tour Guide 2001:1).

Still another theme is the face-to-face nature of the Cajun Mardi Gras, the antithesis of New Orleans' grand-scale, impersonal, and dangerous spectacles. The St. Landry Parish Visitor's Guide suggests that the countryside offers a "great alternative to the congested New Orleans celebration"(2001). Likewise, the town of Mamou offers the "warmth of a small town" in contrast to the "mammoth New Orleans parades," Louisiana Travel says ( mardigras.html October 7, 2001). (Anyone who's actually been in Mamou on Mardi Gras day may disagree with this. It is such a mob scene that residents have considered fencing off the town during Mardi Gras and charging admission. Undoubtedly, years of promotion have contributed to the overcrowding.) Eunice goes one step further and offers tourists an intensely personal experience; the chance to put on a costume and participate in the run itself, as well as associated activities.

Regina Bendix notes that tourists are "always in search of the authentic experience" (1989:133), which always lies elsewhere-in other cultures, the past, or in "purer, simpler lifestyles" (McCannell in Staub 1988:172). Tourism promoters, in response, market certain destinations or events as a locus of authenticity (Bendix 1994). A 1989 brochure for the Tee Mamou-Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival promises vacationers an "authentic Cajun Cultural Experience," for example. Efforts to essentialize and commodify country Mardi Gras runs rely heavily on the relative absence of commercialization. Descriptions of Cajuns' colorful homemade, one-of-a kind (and thus authentic) costumes are juxtaposed with New Orleans' mass-produced plastic beads and artificial glitz, conjuring up images of an exotic but down-home event not yet spoiled by commercialism. These advertising messages converge to suggest the country Mardi Gras run as the "ideal folk community" as folklorists and others once imagined it; rural, isolated, and pre-industrial, holding fast to its pure traditions (Becker 1998, Bendix 1997).

Unlike New Orleans parades, the Cajun Mardi Gras run must be discovered, and this makes it all the more attractive to today's sophisticated tourists. The Travel Agent web site advises that Acadiana "may be the perfect recommendation for the repeat client who has seen Mardi Gras New Orleans-style, and who is now ready to experience something a little different" (2001). New Orleans is for beginners; the country Mardi Gras attracts the more discerning, somewhat jaded traveler seeking untamed authenticity.

In reality, Mardi Gras participants, local promoters, and state tourism officials alike recognize that Mardi Gras runs cannot easily absorb hordes of tourists, and tour buses would soon overwhelm any courir. Cajun folklorist and cultural activist Barry Ancelet notes that unless the flow of "casual visitors who want only a brief brush with the Cajun experience" is carefully channeled, tourists "end up in real places" (1992:258) like community Mardi Gras runs, where they may displace locals. Shane Bernard (2003) describes an incident in Mamou in which a busload of tourists unknowingly disrupted a local Mardi Gras dance; as they took over the dance floor, they marveled that so few locals were dancing.

Bruce Morgan has served as head of communications at the Louisiana Office of Tourism for the last twenty-seven years, and much of his job involves orienting travel journalists to Louisiana culture. he feels strongly that tourism agencies should play a "cultural conservator role," in his words. he calls cultural promotion a "very narrow line you walk," and remarks, "You don't want to over promote or you don't want to over-stimulate those who are being promoted" (Morgan 9-25-01). Otherwise, he says, "You end up distorting the product itself, as well as having either an adverse effect or an unintended effect on the culture that you're supposedly trying to help." Mr. Morgan comments that he sees Mardi Gras courirs as essentially private events with strong community support. He says, "I don't think that this was ever intended to be a public show. So why make it a public show? What's the point of creating a tourist attraction out of something that is not public? That would be to me the same thing as having paparazzi come to a mass" (ibid.). On the other hand, he feels that Mardi Gras festivals and fairs purposely created as public events are a positive development.

A number of rural communities have structured just such tourist-friendly public events around their Mardi Gras runs. Street dances, fairs, jam sessions, and other activities offer visitors a limited and mediated brush with the celebration. Most Mardi Gras runs leave town early in the morning, wind through the countryside for many hours, and return to town that afternoon to parade on foot, horseback, or in wagons. Downtown events keep tourists occupied-and spending money on food, drink, and souvenirs-until the courir returns. Visitors can then enjoy a parade of the "real thing" as maskers pull them into a dance and beg from them (Ancelet 1992). These events not only make Mardi Gras more accessible to tourists, they act as buffers for the runs. They are, as Ancelet observes, "ingenious ways of keeping [visitors] out of the way of what is going on" in the country (1992:260).

For years, horseback Mardi Gras runs in Mamou and Church Point publicly represented the Cajun Mardi Gras celebration. Recently, other communities have also carved out their own Mardi Gras identities and become tourist destinations. Eunice and Iota are two prominent examples. Organizers in both communities see Mardi Gras tourism as a source of income, but also as a chance to engage and educate locals. The specific contours of tourism in each place are shaped by organizers' motivations, resources, choices, and visions of the event.


Eunice, a St. Landry Parish city of just under twelve thousand people, is recognized as one of the region's heritage tourism success stories. Curtis Joubert is a primary architect of Eunice's transformation into Louisiana's "Prairie Cajun Capital," known worldwide for its music, food, and Mardi Gras. Mr. Joubert, a former educator and state legislator who grew up in nearby Lawtell, has lived in Eunice for many years and served as its mayor for thirteen and a half years.6

He recalls that when he was first elected mayor in 1980, Eunice was an " oil related town" whose economy was devastated almost overnight. He says he felt that he "had to find some way to boost the economy" and provide leadership that encouraged people "to feel good about themselves and their community." Industries had little interest in coming to Eunice, he says, "So we came up with the idea of cultural tourism." he comments that at that point, French Louisiana "wasn't really into tourism."

Eunice's tourism campaign began by celebrating local music and foodways. The town purchased and renovated the abandoned Liberty Theatre and eventually began producing Rendez-vous des Cadiens, a live radio and television show of Cajun and zydeco music, there every Saturday night. For many years, Eunice's other main show case was its World Championship Crawfish Etouffé Cook-off, held every March. When the National Park Service announced plans to create three interpretive centers in Acadiaria, Mayor Joubert lobbied hard for Eunice as a host site (Ancelet 1992). Today, the Prairie Acadian Culture Center adjoins the Liberty Theatre and presents regular public folklife programming.

Eventually, Mardi Gras became another cornerstone of the city's tourism initiative. Since the town's founding in the 188Os, the nearby countryside had hosted a Mardi Gras run that regularly visited town ( October 7, 2001, March 17, 2003), and at some point it became known as the Eunice run. Like most Cajun runs, it waxed and waned over the years. The late Hillman Smith joined the (then all-male) run in 1934 at the age of fourteen, later became a capitaine, and remained involved until his death more than six decades later. In a 1997 publication, Mr. Smith provided a remarkable perspective on the run's history. he recalled that in pre-World War II years, "The biggest Mardi Gras run that we had . . . had seventy-eight riders, all on horseback and all men" (Langley et al. 1997:13).

The war disrupted the local run, but as members returned from military service, they regrouped to run Mardi Gras. At first, the group was small; in 1946, it consisted of six maskers and a captain. The run gradually grew, but struggled for survival at times. Curtis Joubert, who does not run Mardi Gras, recalls the run when it consisted of, he says, "maybe fifteen or twenty old-timers who would have a little neighborhood run." he notes its poor public image then, and remembers that the riders "were not even allowed to stop in town. And ... in fact, the schools, they made the kids look the other way, and that kind of stuff. It really left a lot to be desired." By the 1970s, so few men were interested in running Mardi Gras that they invited a local women's run to join them. This merger increased the number of riders and helped ensure the run's survival, and today women and men run Mardi Gras together in Eunice, on horses or in trailers (Personal Interview: October 9, 2001).

In the 1980s, under Mayor Joubert's leadership, civic leaders began considering the tourism potential of Eunice's still loosely-organized run. Mr. Joubert remembers, "Then we [said], 'Well, let's continue on, we're doing pretty well with this [cultural tourism].' And we figured that our little neighboring towns of Mamou and Church Point, they had successful Mardi Gras . . . that brought quite a few people and we figured, 'Well, let's try this in Eunice.'"

In what he calls "a new beginning" for Cajun culture and Mardi Gras, Curtis Joubert and others crafted a new vision for the local celebration. Many community runs had reputations as drunken and dangerous events; Eunice would take a different direction, reinventing the run as a "family oriented" event with less drinking, more law enforcement, and greater safety. Mr. Joubert says, "So we decided . . . that we would be a little bold and courageous, and we would start featuring the traditional Mardi Gras but inviting the [sic] entire families to come and call it a family-oriented-as much as you can-a family-oriented Mardi Gras."

Bringing tax revenues into the city's coffers was one goal. Another motive, according to Mr. Joubert, was "creat[ing] a different image" of Mardi Gras and Cajun culture; he wanted to correct negative publicity and stereotypes. Mr. Joubert says, "Being a native of this . . . area, I'm fairly familiar with . . . the image I felt we portrayed on a national level around Mardi Gras. Which was a terrible image in my opinion." Journalists tended to depict the rural Mardi Gras as (in his words) " just a time to get drunk and fall off of horses and imitate the national media and try to shock them." he says, "Then they'd go back and wrote all kindfs] of bad stories about us in Louisiana .... And worst of all, I think they kind of figured that the Cajuns were prone to that type of thing ... as uneducated, partying people who really didn't amount to too much."

One step in redefining the Eunice Mardi Gras was creating child-centered activities. Mr. Joubert says that a downtown "walking parade" for young children and their parents was an immediate success. he remembers, "We had mothers pushing strollers, and little babies, and I said, 'Well, I think this thing might work, you know, people having enough faith in the activity and enough faith that it's safe for the whole family."

As families came to parade, other people started coming to watch. Mr. Joubert says, "And we started serving . . . gumbo and boiled crawfish and boudin [a pork and rice sausage] . . . You know the indigenous foods in this area, and really made it kind of a little cultural thing for us." he suggests that the city's new concept of a family-centered event filled a void for local residents and out-of-town visitors. In Eunice, "you could come with the whole family and young boys, young girls, babies, grandmas, grandpas, they could walk by in safety, they could go actually eat gumbo. It was kind of like a church bazaar you could say, or a community gathering." Gradually, Mardi Gras-related events expanded to fill four days, and Mr. Joubert recalls, "It just exploded to where we started having people from all over."

In the mid-1990s, the children's walking parade became a children's Mardi Gras run, which takes place on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The children travel on trailers rather than on horses, but their run (like the adult courir) ends with a parade down second Street. Mr. Joubert says, "We have four or five hundred kids on that [parade]. And they're all in flatbeds and the parents are allowed to ride on it, like a hay ride."

A second tactic in creating a new identity was to make the event educational as well as entertaining. Organizers wanted to counteract negative images of Cajun culture and Mardi Gras by teaching local people, the media, and visitors more about its history and significance. So, Mr. Joubert says, the city began scheduling "cultural presentations, stories about Mardi Gras, and getting the learned people-like Dr. Barry Ancelet-to come and have a lecture . . . about tracing the history and what . . . was the meaning of Mardi Gras." Today, the emphasis on educational programs continues. Throughout the holiday, Eunice Museum presents Mardi Gras-related exhibits and films, and the Prairie Acadian Culture Center sponsors a series of cooking and craft demonstrations, musical performances, slide shows, and workshops.

A third twist was opening the adult run to outsiders. The Eunice Mardi Gras run is promoted as open to everyone who masks and pays association fees. A 1994 flyer states "Tourists encouraged to participate in all events" and adds that costumes are available for sale locally. As a result, the run has rapidly swelled over the last decade. Recent years have seen as many as two thousand riders, a mixture of Eunice residents, other Louisianians, and out-of-state and international tourists. (The town now offers a trophy to the rider who has traveled farthest to participate, and the 1992 winner was from Denmark.) (Mardi Gras in Eunice 1992).

These numbers make Eunice's the largest Mardi Gras run in the region, where a few community courirs include many more than a hundred maskers. The city has proudly laid claim to this distinction, which (along with its family-oriented style) has become central to its identity. just as Mamou is billed as "the oldest traditional Mardi Gras run," Eunice is promoted as "the largest traditional Mardi Gras in America" (October 9, 2001). Curtis Joubert suggests that the presence of women has "added a lot of class to our whole parade and the whole thing," helping to reinforce the Eunice run's image as a relatively orderly and cleaned-up event. The riders' behavior, he feels, is "aided tremendously by having women on the run. Let's face it, the ladies are there and the men have to adjust their behavior accordingly."

The city also created a truck parade to mark the count's, customary return to town. Locals and tourists who wanted to mask, but didn't want to run all day in the countryside, could ride down second Street on decorated flatbed trailers, half an hour before the horsemen's arrival. The Liberty truck parade, headed by the mayor, is still a popular feature of Eunice's festivities. Mr. Joubert says participants are "mostly locals but anybody can ride."

Although Cajun Mardi Gras runs are defined in opposition to New Orleans, many counrs have in fact absorbed elements of the urban Carnival, especially in their downtown parades. Mr. Joubert first makes a point of distinguishing the Eunice parade from big-city parades, saying, "We don't throw a lot of trinkets, we don't throw a lot of Mardi Gras beads." But immediately he adds, "Now it's getting more and more that people throw [beads], but that's not the purpose of it. They just do it, when they get back in town they get a bag of beads and throw it from the horses and everything." he jokes, "We frown on that but. . . you'd have to shoot them [to stop them.]"

Eunice's new identity as a family-oriented Mardi Gras was, Mr. Joubert says, "how we did it differently than [other towns.] We were not competing against anybody, we just wanted to offer something else and try to bring people to our town so they would fill our little-at the time I think we had one motel." he comments, "And it looked like we hit the nail on the head because it worked. And ... we never had any major problems, [and] people had fun."

Although the city had a different twist on the Mardi Gras tradition, initially they had no money to promote it. Organizers adopted a very grass-roots approach to publicity, calling on networks they had created over the years. Mr. Joubert recalls that they sent press releases to everyone they could think of, and appeared on every available morning television and radio show. They also mailed taped invitations to out-of-state acquaintances, asking them to find radio airplay.

Today, the Eunice Mardi Gras celebration is one of the region's bestknown and well-attended; as many as 50,000 people visit the city during its four days of Mardi Gras events. But Eunice, not wealthy by any means, still has no real budget for promotion. City-produced publicity runs to simple, xeroxed flyers (ibid.) inviting readers to "Join the thousands of people in Eunice, LA for a Family Oriented Mardi Gras Celebration!" (Indeed, this low-budget approach is part of the city's charm, and probably contributes to its aura of authenticity.) However, Eunice's Mardi Gras festivities receive a great deal of inexpensive or free publicity through newspaper event listings, the city's own web site and other internet sites, and local and national television coverage. Mr Joubert says, "We've been lucky, we've been on every national television [broadcast company]." NBC once sent a news team to Eunice for three days to cover Mardi Gras, for example. The St. Landry Parish Tourism Commission, whose director is a Eunice native, also helps promote the Eunice run through its brochures and tourist guides.

Eunice offers visitors many ways to experience French Louisiana life and Mardi Gras. Throughout the four-day weekend, public festivities take over downtown Eunice. Shops along second Street decorate their windows and open their doors, play Cajun music, and sell Mardi Gras suits and masks from sidewalk racks. Music and dancing provide easy access to local culture. Cajun music jam sessions and street dances abound during Mardi Gras, and an extra Saturday night performance of the Rendez-vous des CO/MAS show is always sold out. Food presents another way to participate. On Sunday, the city sponsors a demonstration of an "Old Time Boucherie" (hog butchering) and cochon de lait (pig roast) in front of City Hall, and visitors can sample traditional pork dishes made on-site.

Other activities are more directly related to Mardi Gras. Vacationers can mask and compete for prizes at a Saturday-night Mardi Gras dance sponsored by St. Thomas More Catholic Church. They can join the Mardi Gras riders on Tuesday, or stay in town to enjoy live music on three stages, food, crafts, and other activities while they await the Mardi Gras' re-entry. Local volunteers dressed in screen masks and Mardi Gras suits add another layer of interaction, as they roam the streets to dance, clown, and gently "pick at" (tease) visitors. Many tourists, as well as local residents, wear their own festive holiday outfits, usually heavily influenced by New Orleans symbols: striped shirts in Carnival's green, gold and purple colors, jesters' hats, and strings of oversized Mardi Gras beads.

Many vacationers travel to Eunice every year for Mardi Gras. A number are 'Yankees" (almost anyone not from south Louisiana) or international tourists, but Mr. Joubert points out that Eunice also attracts New Orleans residents. he comments, "And that's interesting. And you know in New Orleans, they love . . . their Mardi Gras. But they discover the rural area and they just get away from the heiter skelter over there and come down here and really feel relaxed."7

Mardi Gras tourism has obviously brought economic benefits to the community. Its success-and that of cultural tourism in general-is evident in the growth of Eunice's hospitality industry, which now includes a number of bed-and-breakfast businesses and four hotels, including a Best Western. The city keeps no exact figures on Mardi Gras income and has never "ran the scientific formula" on its effects, according to Mr. Joubert. (In contrast, economists calculate the income generated by the New Orleans Carnival every year.) Instead, Eunice officials measure Mardi Gras' impact informally, by asking business owners if they did well over the holiday. Usually, hotels are completely booked for the Mardi Gras holiday months in advance. Mr. Joubert points out that cultural tourism in general "kept our city afloat, I can tell you that . . . We kept afloat, we never had to raise taxes. And it became a place to visit, to go to."

Tourism has also achieved a second goal: changing how the national press, and many local people, think about Cajuns. Curtis Joubert says, "Mardi Gras still has its celebrated misbehavior type things. [But] you don't have [the media] pinpointing rural south Louisiana and showing the same feel that they used to. This is my opinion. . . People don't talk down about the Cajun people anymore, they don't look down on them." he adds, "Our objectives have been met many, many times over, in ways that we never envisioned. We didn't have the vision to think that it would be that great. ... So [tourism has] brought us so many wonderful things."

But what impact has tourism had on the Eunice Mardi Gras run itself? The most obvious change is its rapid growth -from fewer than a hundred riders years ago to two thousand in the 2001 run. With each rider paying dues of about twenty dollars, this obviously means more income for the Eunice Mardi Gras Association. Many of the Eunice residents I know, including some who run Mardi Gras regularly, take pride in having the region's largest Mardi Gras run; they enjoy introducing their tradition to newcomers. In some ways, then, tourism has given new life to local tradition, and the present -day run is an impressive public display of cultural pride.

Hillman Smith devotedly headed the Mardi Gras run every year because, as he put it, "I really love the Mardi Gras run, regardless of the changes" (Langley et al. 1997:17). His remarks suggest some ambivalence, though, as he commented, "The unfortunate part of all this is we are losing some of what we wanted to preserve" (Langley et al. 1997:17). The number of riders makes it impossible for everyone to dismount, sing, dance, chase chickens, and clown at houses, so most remain on the wagons or horses throughout. Instead of making dozens of house visits, Mr. Smith said, "we mostly ride in the countryside." (In more recent years, young riders have begun their own alternative traditions, such as diving into the mud along their route.) As a consequence, according to Mr. Smith, "the run is becoming more like a trail ride than a traditional Mardi Gras run." That, he commented, is "a shame because we still want to keep the old traditions alive" (Langley et al. 1997:17).

Even tourism's strongest proponents recognize that change is not always good for the Eunice run. The event now requires military -like precision to organize, for example. Mr. Joubert comments on its complex logistics: "It takes almost a whole regiment to keep [the riders] on time and do this .... It's like an army now, moving through the countryside. Confidentially, it's almost too big."

The Eunice run also has critics among Eunice residents and neighboring towns, who cite it as an example of excessive growth and commercialism. For instance, Marc Savoy, a world -renowned Cajun musician and accordion maker, stopped performing for the Eunice Mardi Gras some years ago because he felt the event had strayed too far from tradition. (He and his wife Ann Savoy continue play for the annual Mardi Gras dance at St. Thomas More Hall, though.)

Members of other, smaller community runs are especially vocal. They consider running Mardi Gras an art form, learned by watching, listening to, and emulating seasoned riders. Most tourists and other newcomers to the Eunice run have little understanding of the custom, and the group's performance suffers as a consequence (Bernard 2003). Some critics suggest that the Eunice Mardi Gras has become a demonstration for visitors first and foremost, and only secondarily a community performance. The most common criticism is that the run has lost its identity and become just another trail ride. (The Eunice News, citing Mardi Gras officials, reminds readers that the Mardi Gras celebration is "a traditional one. . . and is not to be confused with a trail ride," and that throwing beads is "not in keeping with the true rural Mardi Gras" [February 27, 1992].)

Welcoming outsiders into the run has occasionally brought other unforeseen consequences. In the mid 1990s, an African -American visitor from Kentucky sought to register with the Mardi Gras Association and join Cajun friends on the courir, but was turned away because of his race. Barry Ancelet reports that the visitor chose not to protest his exclusion, but "his white Cajun friends were embarrassed and did protest. The press reported this unfortunate and ugly incident, but it remained unresolved" (1999:23). The incident forced the Eunice Mardi Gras Association to "face issues deeper than first expected," Ancelet notes, and some members "found themselves wondering about the wisdom of extending a wide -open invitation to participate in the ritual and explored what other neighboring communities have done to assure appropriate, local participation" (ibid.). Today, the Eunice run, like virtually all Cajun Mardi Gras runs, still includes only white riders, and as far as I know, the implicit rule that Mardi Gras runs are segregated events has not been tested again in Eunice.

Its rapid growth has affected the Eunice run in other ways. Curtis Joubert remarks that as mayor, he had to resist efforts to commercialize and homogenize the celebration, not always easy in a small town where "we're all friends." Community groups pressed to sell raffle tickets, and the street parade of horses and decorated flatbed trailers posed particular problems. he recalls, "Everybody wanted to start putting commercial floats, and every kind of gimmick you can imagine was tried." Mr. Joubert feels strongly that leaders must "keep a lid" on change, in his words. he says, "It's very hard to keep it pure and to see the real thing. Because well -meaning people are not aware of what you're trying to do and you have these clashes." he cautions, 'You always have to be aware that people want to commercialize it to where it's going to soon disappear. That it's going to be taken over by people who, for financial reasons, are going to abandon what you tried to do." Commercialization is liable to "encroach on you so slowly, when you know something it will be too late and you won't be able to undo it," he says. Community leaders, he believes, must always be on guard, because "People come here to experience the real thing, [they] don't want the same thing as at a state fair." he feels that the town can still keep the run "close to what it used to be" by preserving certain essential elements, notably Cajun music and chicken chases.

Despite its drawbacks, Mr. Joubert sees Mardi Gras tourism as a form of cultural revival and maintenance. During his tenure, he says, "We were using our culture, keeping it pure, not getting it as a sideshow but where people could come and have a pleasant experience and real life experience. And we tried to keep it that way." he continues, "I'm sure we screwed up in a lot of instances. But we really tried .... We were all doing it for love of the culture."


Iota, about sixteen miles southwest of Eunice in Acadia Parish, is a former railroad town of perhaps eleven hundred people -a tenth of Eunice's population. While Eunice has the Liberty Theatre, the Prairie Acadian Culture Center, and weekly cultural events, downtown Iota has little to interest most tourists. But the area surrounding Iota, like Eunice, has a long history of Mardi Gras runs. Iota is traditionally the last stop for a courir based in Tee Mamou (Little Mamou, not to be confused with the town of Mamou, or "Grand Mamou"), a country neighborhood nearby. Fifteen years ago, the town created an annual Mardi Gras festival around the Tee Mamou run, and today the festival is lota's main draw for tourists.

In many ways, the history of the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras run parallels Eunice's. One distinction, according to participants, is that the Tee Mamou run continued uninterrupted throughout the World War II years. By that time, the run had switched from horses to a farm truck. Like many other Cajun runs, the small Tee Mamou group was stigmatized during the post-war years. In the late 1950s, for example, lota's police chief turned the riders away because a couple of maskers were about to fight. Claude Durio, a long -time co-captain, remembers the group being booted out of town and notes the irony that "Now today, you see, [Iota is] promoting a big, big Mardi Gras thing. But things change in a few years" (1992).

The counr's image gradually began improving after Gerald Frugé became head captain in 1968. Gerald is generally credited with saving and revising the all -male run by instituting changes that included strong leadership, written rules, better organization, and greater accountability. In addition, he helped organize -and for many years led -a separate women's run, which still takes place on the weekend before Mardi Gras (Lindahl and Ware 1997, Ware 1994, Ware 1995, Ware 2001). Still, core members of the run had to work hard for many years to reform the run's image. The Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival, some suggest, has both capitalized on and boosted the run's transformation to a local cultural icon.

Since Gerald Frugé's death in 1998, his son Todd has led Tee Mamou's men's and women's runs, assisted by eight or so co-captains, or assistants. Both runs thrive today, with the women's run attracting anywhere from thirty five to sixty maskers, and the men's typically drawing seventy to a hundred. Here, as in most Cajun Mardi Gras communities, Mardi Gras riders pay modest dues to join the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association and take part in the run.

lota's development of Mardi Gras tourism trailed Eunice's by a few years. Local people had long gathered downtown to watch the Mardi Gras arrive downtown and beg from local businesses. Twenty years ago, as Claude Durio says, most spectators were "people in the neighborhood, and all neighbors in town, people they knew." (Personal Interview: june 16, 1992). By the late 1980s, downtown crowds had grown, and lota's mayor, police chief, and city council decided to build a Mardi Gras festival around the informal procession. They created the non -profit Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival Association (later, "Mardi Gras" was dropped) and began planning a one -day festival for 1988. From the beginning, the festival was conceived as a public event for outsiders as well as insiders. Iota, like Eunice, saw Mardi Gras as a chance for economic development during a time when tax revenues had declined.

Larry Miller, an Iota native, has been an important force in shaping the festival and its identity.8 A retired educator, Larry now makes accordions, plays Cajun music, and is active in the Cajun French Music Association. With his wife Jackie, a Mardi Gras mask maker, he demonstrates folk crafts at various Louisiana festivals. Larry and Jackie do not run Mardi Gras (he tried it once for the experience), but other members of their family do. Several sons and grandchildren are regulars in the Tee Mamou men's and children's runs, and a daughter -in -law helps organize the children's run.

When we spoke over the phone in 2001, Larry recalled hearing in 1987 that a few townspeople had approached capitaine Gerald Frugé about having a Mardi Gras festival to "do something" for lota's economy. Larry was concerned that cultural preservation might be sacrificed to promotion, and that town officials "didn't have any idea how to protect the cultural aspects" of the local Mardi Gras tradition. he immediately asked to take part in festival planning. City Councilman Joel Cart was elected festival president; Larry Miller became the festival's folklife director and served on its board for eleven years.

Knowing that lota's festival would have to compete with Lafayette and other towns for holiday visitors, Mr. Miller argued that the event should be "as unique as possible." he suggested the town define its festival as a "folklife -type festival" and "work in as many folklife elements as possible" to distinguish it from other Mardi Gras street dances and fairs. The Mardi Gras run itself would be only one component.

Larry and Jackie, both folklife festival veterans, drafted a constitution and bylaws for the Iota festival and handed out copies at the association's next planning meeting. Their proposal was accepted with only a few minor changes. The event would follow a formula familiar to most folklorists: demonstrations of regional crafts, preparation and sales of local foodways, and performances of Cajun and zydeco music. The only "bone of contention," he says, was the Millers' stipulation that all food should be "the true authentic stuff." This suggestion was dropped because planners feared that sales would suffer if visitors couldn't buy hamburgers and other customary festival foods.

Conserving the local Mardi Gras tradition was key to his vision for the festival, Larry Miller says. Planners were resolved to "do nothing that would . . . alter the traditions of the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras"-they were "not going to let the tail wag the dog." They decided to include a representative of the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association among seven voting members of the festival's Board of Directors, to ensure their plans would not harm the run. Initially this rule concerned some board members, who -according to Mr. Miller -worried that the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras association might try to control the festival. Clearly, town officials and business people saw this as their event and were determined to retain command.

The Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival debuted in 1988 and was such a success that food vendors ran out of food. Organizers later estimated that the first festival drew almost 8,000 people, including a thousand to fifteen hundred out -of -state visitors.9 Fifteen years later, the festival, which charges no admission, remains popular and follows much the same format as the inaugural event. It begins at 8:30 on Mardi Gras morning with an official welcome, invocation, and introduction of Mardi Gras Festival Association officials, lota's town officials, and the festival's tee shirt designer. Three music stages offer music by Cajun and zydeco bands throughout the day and occasional performances by dance troupes.

True to original planning, the present -day Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival features an assortment of folk traditions. Food booths offer local dishes such as barbecue, crawfish eouffé, cracklins, jambalaya, gumbo, fried alligator, and syrup pies, most sold by community groups-churches, the 4 -H club, Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, and so on. Crafts are far more prominent than at most Mardi Gras fairs, and lota's festival has opened up a new market for regional artists. Craftspeople display and sell corn husk dolls, white oak baskets, chairs, palmetto hats, Cajun sunbonnets, and accordions, alongside less traditional arts and crafts such as driftwood sculptures and face painting (Arts and Crafts 2003). Cajun Mardi Gras souvenirs are especially popular: Jackie Miller's wire screen masks, and Mardi Gras pins and dolls made by several other local women.

Many of the music, food, and craft traditions show cased have little connection to Mardi Gras; they reflect everyday prairie culture, or an old -time version of it. The Tee Mamou Mardi Gras run, however, provides the festival's central symbols and images, and remains its strongest selling point. The festival logo is a masked figure chasing a chicken, and brochures feature color photographs of Tee Mamou maskers on their wagon and begging from spectators. Some festival organizers and musicians set a festive tone by dressing in fringed Mardi Gras suits and capuchons, but usually don't mask. The 1994 festival featured the wedding of a couple who had met there several years earlier, with the groom, best man, and officiating judge (who doubles as a Cajun musician) in Mardi Gras costumes. It seems, then, that on this day, Mardi Gras takes symbolic precedence over the marriage ceremony and other rituals.

A relatively new addition is a festival performance by the Tee Mamou children's run, early in the afternoon. But the centerpiece remains the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras' arrival in town. The Tuesday countryside run includes only male riders, but members of the Tee Mamou women's run now join them for the parade along lota's Main Street. From their painted wagons, the maskers toss candy to the crowds before dismounting at the main music stage. There they climb onto a raised dance floor, sing their Mardi Gras song into a microphone, dance with each other, and then mingle with the spectators to beg from, clown for, and dance with them. The group's arrival in town has become, in a literal sense, a staged performance, but one that allows some interaction between maskers and observers.

Defining lota's festival as an interpretive folklife event was one tactic in its production of difference. Another was asserting the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras run itself (and thus its festival performance) as older, more authentic, and more traditional than its neighbors. The Tee Mamou run is presented as a rare and valuable survival, the "last of the totally traditional Prairie Cajun Mardi Gras groups," according to a 1989 festival brochure (1989). This claim lies partly in the group's requirement that all members dress in handmade masks, capuchons, and Mardi Gras suits, while most other runs allow a variety of disguises. Festival brochures advertise Tee Mamou as the "last remaining Cajun group so dressed!" (1989). Another claim to authenticity is the antiquity of its Mardi Gras song, or chanson de Mardi Gras. A 1989 festival brochure promotes the Tee Mamou variant as a "300+ year old chant in French."

The Iota festival, like Eunice, aims to educate as well as entertain. The festival's strong interpretive slant during its first two or three years reflected the townspeople's "pride in our heritage," Larry Miller says. Grant funding enabled Iota to create exhibits, a newsprint festival guide full of articles on Mardi Gras, and narrative stage discussions of Acadia Parish folklife. The Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association edited home videos and put together a film of their run for the 1988 festival. all of these features were directed at local people as much as at outsiders. Barry Ancelet (1992), Carl Lindahl (1991), and others have pointed out that public Mardi Gras events can "re -educate" Cajuns about their own tradition, rejuvenate local interest, and inspire young people to run Mardi Gras. Carl Lindahl argues that in Iota and Eunice, "the fairs accompanying the celebration provide not only entertainment for the tourists, but also a re -education for the community itself.... Both functions draw tourists, but are aimed equally inward, in the spirit of community self-celebration" (1991:8).

Today, limited funding means fewer educational elements, but the festival continues to reach out to young people, and a children's tent with crafts and Cajun music is a popular feature. Admission is free, so the festival depends largely on support from various sponsors.10 The festival association's web site lists forty -two sponsors for the 2003 event, including individual residents, elected officials, local businesses, and the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, which owns a casino not far from Iota.

Marketing has always played an important part in constructing and reinforcing the festival's identity as "An Authentic Cajun Cultural Experience." n Organizers use full -color brochures, t-shirts, flyers, and newspaper event listings to promote the event. A more recent tool is a festival association web site, with photographs of the Tee Mamou run and previous festivals, a schedule of events, a list of festival officers, and an online guest book. Iota, like Eunice, also receives television coverage and other free advertising.

Iota, like Eunice, has gained from Mardi Gras tourism. The festival has brought some financial benefits, though perhaps not as many as organizers originally hoped. As a one-day, once-a-year event, the festival has not had a tremendous economic impact, Miller says. For one thing, many local businesses are closed on Mardi Gras day. And unlike Eunice, Iota has no motels. However, festival visitors do spend money on food, drink, and crafts downtown. The town keeps no exact attendance statistics, but Larry Miller guesses that about sixty percent of lota's festival visitors come from outside the immediate area -from Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, or outside Louisiana. The event, he says, has made many more people aware of Iota, and some of these people might return to shop there.

Other, less tangible benefits include positive attention for both Iota and the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras run. This, Larry Miller suggests, is the festival's most significant legacy. he says, "The big thing is community pride-it's been a focus on Iota." The festival has become a community reunion of sorts, as "all of these former graduates who had to move [away]... to find work" return home to visit. Usually, he says, they spend several days in the area, and some decide to move back home after being reminded of its "non -monetary good life." Comments entered in the festival's on -line guest book suggest that the event does indeed boost local pride. In a typical message, an Iota native remarks, "For such a little town, Iota is big in one thing and it is definitely Mardi Gras" (http:// March 15, 2003).

Effects on the Tee Mamou run are harder to gauge, although they are certainly less dramatic than in Eunice. Tee Mamou does not invite tourists to mask and run, and consequently the courir's size has not mushroomed. Members of the Tee Mamou run, both women and men, seem to enjoy performing at the festival, and the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association keeps the coins and dollars bills they solicit from festival spectators. This money, sometimes a couple hundred dollars, helps offset some of the run's expenses. Asked whether the festival has been good or bad for the Tee Mamou run, a co -captain concludes that the growing crowd of strangers downtown is "one of the changes ... I guess we can accept. You see, it's helping Iota." he adds jokingly that some visitors may "leave sober enough to remember what they saw that day there. It's probably helping the Cajun culture a little bit."

The festival association, which plans and produces the festival and controls its images, and the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras Association, which organizes the run itself, appear to have a friendly but tenuous connection to each other. Larry Miller remarks that they "co -exist very well and cooperate very well." Still, the Mardi Gras Association remains pretty much on the sidelines in festival politics. Mardi Gras and captains seem more like festival performers than full partners. In a 1988 interview, for example, a former Tee Mamou co-captain joked that "We're just another booth" at the festival (Frugé et al.1988).

Bruce Morgan of the Louisiana Office of Tourism praises the Iota festival as non -invasive Mardi Gras tourism. The event, he suggests, "takes the private event [the run] and gives it a culmination in a public celebration" without changing the run itself. he suggests, "It's just that they've included outsiders, and given a way for outsiders to come in and enjoy the total community event" (September 25, 2001).

However, the festival has altered Tee Mamou's performance and route to some extent. The run can no longer operate solely on its own internal rhythms; the festival imposes an external timetable. The courir once arrived in Iota sometime in the late afternoon, but now members line up in time to begin their parade promptly at 2:00, to better mesh with the music stage schedule. Accordingly, the run's captains have rearranged and shortened their schedule of house visits. Some households choose to watch the riders at the festival instead of receiving them at their home, eliminating several customary stops.

The Tuesday festival also had an impact on the Tee Mamou women's Saturday run, which customarily ended in Iota. The women's visit was dropped soon after the festival's debut to focus attention on the men's Tuesday parade. According to Suson Launey, a member for over twenty years, the women then demanded to join the men's parade because "we are part of the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras" (May 25, 1998). Everyone seems fairly satisfied with the current solution, having men and women parade through town on separate trailers.

Perhaps the most significant change is the event's shifting audience (Ware 2003). What was once mainly an insider event has become a public event in Iota, if not in the countryside. Downtown, strangers often outnumber friends and neighbors. Claude Durio comments that the festival brings "more people than Iota ever sees" and this "changed our run in town a lot." With the throngs, the parade through town has become more a spectacle than a reciprocal performance. A broader, more diverse Mardi Gras audience also opens the local tradition to more intense outside scrutiny, and as Ancelet comments, forces Mardi Gras communities to "come to terms with themselves publicly in a way that they have not done privately" (1999:23-24).

In Iota, like Eunice, racial relationships have been one focus of this scrutiny. The presence of Tee Mamou's nèg'and négresse, a pair of traditional comic figures played by Cajun men wearing blackface make-up, is increasingly controversial as more tourists flock to the festival (Ancelet 1999, Lindahl 2001, Ware 2003).12 Tee Mamou now compromises by including the nèg and négresse for country visits but not in town, though some members resent the change.

It also seems that the town -based festival has blurred the identity of the country run to some extent. Many outsiders and some locals now call the Tee Mamou run the Iota run, because of the festival's prominence. Indeed, the town's festival association website incorrectly refers to the courir as the Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras. This subtle appropriation has always disturbed me, as it does some Tee Mamou runners and captains.

Contemporary folklorists have convincingly argued that tourism need not be seen simply as "an intrusive agent destroying cultures" (Bendix 1989:133). Ethnie groups continually invent, reinterpret, and negotiate their own notions of tradition and its boundaries (Handler and Linnekin 1984, Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), and tourism is only one of many forces in this process. Communities find their own meanings in public display events seemingly directed at non -natives (Bendix 1989), as members appropriate and reshape external notions of tradition and authenticity to fit their own aesthetics and needs.13 Larry Danielson, for example, observes that the revived and reinvented St. Lucia festival in Lindsborg, Kansas "relocates an ethnic tradition from a private to a public context, self -consciously displays several ethnic folk traditions. . . , encourages the development of tourism, and affirms to local and nonlocal observers the cultural distinctiveness of the community" (1991:188).

This is equally true of Mardi Gras festivities in Eunice and Iota, where country Mardi Gras traditions are reinterpreted and presented to an audience of Cajuns and non -Cajuns. In both places, Mardi Gras tourism has obviously brought many benefits: a much -needed economic infusion, improved public images of the country Mardi Gras and Cajun culture, renewed interest in running Mardi Gras among locals, and a sense of community pride. These gains come at a cost, however, as tourism changes Mardi Gras runs in obvious ways, as in Eunice's mega-run, or in more subtle ways such as Tee Mamou's changed route and schedule. Rural Mardi Gras runs, once largely community -centered events, have become the focus of touristic scrutiny. As a result, they sometimes face unanticipated controversies -over practices such as racial and gender segregation, public drinking, and comic play that sometimes offends visitors.

The politics of Mardi Gras tourism remain largely unexplored, especially issues of class, gender, and authority. Cajun scholar Barry Ancelet is adamant that French Louisiana communities should take an active role in deciding how they are represented; he rightly proposes, "If we are going to open ourselves to the outside, we should at least try to do it well and in our own terms" (1992:264). But whose terms are we talking about in Mardi Gras tourism? Does the tradition belong only to those who take part every year, or to the entire community? What voices are reflected in public representations of community tradition, and who determines acceptable boundaries of change? Perhaps the central question is whether local Mardi Gras associations, which absorb most of the cultural cost, also reap most of the rewards. To me, it appears that often they do not. Actively including Mardi Gras associations in tourism planning, it seems, is the difference between a successful partnership and appropriation of tradition.


1. Twenty -two parishes of south Louisiana are now designated as Acadiana, or sometimes more informally as "Cajun Country."

2. Barry Ancelet (1999) suggests that, to his knowledge, the lone exception is a run in LeBleu Settlement, where blacks and whites run Mardi Gras together.

3. A notable exception is Nicholas Spitzer's exemplary work on Creole Mardi Gras rims.

4. Many of these romantic images also appear in folklorists' descriptions of the Cajun Mardi Gras, including my own. ( see Oster 1964, Oster and Reed 1960, among others.) Indeed, identical phrases often appear in promotional materials and scholarly writings, and some of us produce both kinds of writing. Regina Bendix explores the "linkage between tourism, authenticity, and folklore and folklife scholars in their role as students and analysts of culture" (1994:67) in several works. Mardi Gras communities themselves also tend to emphasize the unchanging nature of their celebration (Spitzer 1986, Ware 1994). Potic Rider of Basile, for example, says that the community Mardi Gras run is an expression of cultural history: "To me, we're trying to show our heritage. Trying to show people what they did a long time ago" (Rider 2000).

Clearly, the idea of a timeless and authentic custom is attractive to tourists, Mardi Gras participants, and scholars alike. But depicting a modern -day celebration as trapped in the past, Helen Regis points out, denies its dynamic nature and the importance of human agency (2001). David Whisnant has also forcefully argued that such nostalgic views of minority cultures can reinforce cultural stereotypes and marginality (Whisnant 1983, Whisnant 1988).

5. The word "ritual" seems to be used interchangeably with "festival" in promotional materials. Roger Abrahams notes that American English often opposes ritual and festival, reserving "ritual" mainly for activities in sacralized spaces, and festival to refer to the "playful and profane domain" (1987:177). Although both involve transformation, the changes involved in ritual are "for real;" in festivals, they are playful and temporary.

6. Curtis Joubert was also my boss when I directed the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Eunice in 1989, and again in 1991; hence, he was a natural choice to interview about Mardi Gras tourism a decade later. all quotes by Curtis Joubert are from an interview taped at his home in Eunice on October 9, 2001.

7. Asked why he thinks tourists come to Eunice for Mardi Gras, Mr. Joubert mentions many of the features promoted in the region's marketing campaigns. he sees the small -town experience as safer, more friendly, more engaging, more genuine and less staged than big -city events. As he says, "You can really feel like you get the real life experience-nothing's staged for you per se." he also touches on notions of "going back in history" to experience an older way of life. Part of Acadiana's allure for outsiders (including visitors from other parts of the state, he suggests, is its exotic Frenchness. He says, "And it's . . . almost a cultural shock. But it's the excitement of the cultural shock, that this [speaking French, running Mardi Gras] is still going on in Louisiana .... I think it's a total package, it's an attitude." People are discovering rural Louisiana, he notes, particularly at Mardi Gras -and he is not surprised. Mr. Joubert comments, "It's a real experience. If I was traveling and could find a place like Louisiana, I would go to it."

8. Larry Miller was also my "culture broker" in 1988; he took me around the Tee Mamou countryside and together we interviewed Mardi Gras riders and captains, past and present. all quotes here are from a phone interview on October 9, 2001.

9. The figure of 8,000 visitors comes from a City of Iota grant application in 1988, months after the first festival. In our 2001 interview, Larry Miller's estimate of the first year's crowd was smaller, three thousand to four thousand; he said it doubled in size the second year.

10. A 1988 grant application by Iota City Government mentions that the city did not financially sponsor the festival in its first year but supported it as much as possible "within the current budgetary restraints."

11. As Rocky Sexton (1999) points out, the festival includes several cultural groups as demonstrators and musicians, but its promotions emphasize the Caj un culture almost exclusively.

12. The nèg' et négresse are stock comic figures in a number of Cajun Mardi Gras runs, dating back at least to the 1940s and fifties. lota's festival visitors have questioned their presence and meaning so often that the festival association created a printed brochure to explain their history (From France to Tee Mamou 1996). see Lindahl 2001 for more thoughts on these figures and the reactions they provoke.

13. There is, of course, a huge body of literature on ethnicity and its public expression. Especially useful in this case are recent publications on "creative ethnicity" and the purposeful manipulation of ethnic symbols in public display events. see for example Danielson and Toelken's essays in Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life (1991), and Tuleja's Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America (1997).



Abrahams, Roger D. 1987. An American Vocabulary of Celebrations. In Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 63 -77.

The Advocate. January 7, 2003 to February 25, 2003.

Ancelet, Barry J. 1990. Mardi Gras and the Media: Who's Fooling Whom? Southern Folklore 46(3):211 -219.

_____. 1992. Cultural Tourism in Cajun Country: Shotgun Wedding or Marriage Made in Heaven? Soulhern Folklore 49(3): 256 -266.

_____. 1999. The Limits and Direction of Creolization: From Mercier's L'habitation St. Ybars to the Eunice Mardi Gras. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany XIV, pp. 15 -26.

Ancelet, Barry J.and James Edmonds. 1989. Capitaine Voyage Ton Flag: The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras. Lafayette, Louisiana: The Center for Louisiana Studies.

Arts and Grafts. Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival, (March 15, 2003).

Becker, Jane. 1998. The Selling of Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk 1930-1940, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Bendix, Regina. 1989. Tourism and Cultural Displays: Inventing Traditions for Whom? Journal of American Folklore 102 (404) : 131 -146.

_____. 1994. The Quest for Authenticity in Tourism and Folklife Studies. Pennsylvania Folklife 43 (2) :67 -70.

_____. 1997. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Bernard, Shane K. 2003. The Cajuns: Americanization of a People. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Cajun Mardi Gras. Savvy Traveler, ( October 7, 2001.

Carnival Calendar. The Times ofAcadiana. February 26, 2003.

de Caro, Frank. 1991. Vermilionville and Beyond. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 6(4):l -4.

City of Eunice. Mardi Gras in Eunice. 1992. City ofEunice, Louisana.

Danielson, Larry. 1991. St. Lucia in Lindsborg, Kansas. In Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life, ed. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala, pp. 187 -203.

Durio, Claude. Interview with author. june 16, 1992. Tape recording.

Dormon, James H. 1983. The People called Cajuns: An Introduction to an Ethnohistory. Lafayette: The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Eunice Courir De Mardi Gras. City ofEunice, ( October 7, 2001, March 17, 2003).

Festivals. St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, (7 October 2001).

Festivals. 2001. St. Landry Parish Visitor's Guide. Opelousas, Louisiana: St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, p. 28.

From France to Tee Mamou: Seven Hundred Years of Continuity and Change in a Traditional Begging Quest. 1996. Brochure for Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Association.

Frugé, Gerald, Roonie Frugé, and Claude Durio. Interview by author 12-11-89. Tape recording.

Guestbook. Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival, (March 15, 2003).

Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin. 1984. Tradition, Genuine or Spurious. Journal of American Folklore 97 (385) :273 -290.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, ed. 1983. The. Invention of Tradition. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Project grant application. 1988. Iota City Government.

Joubert, Curtis. Interview with author, October 9, 2001. Tape recording.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1998. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Langley, Linda, Susan G. Lejeune, and Claude Oubre, ed. 1997. Le Reveil des Fêtes: Revitalized Celebrations and Performance Traditions. Eunice, Louisiana: Louisiana State University at Eunice.

Launey, Suson. Interview with author. May 25, 1998. Tape recording.

Lejeune, Don. Interview with author. 18 March 1992. Tape recording.

Lindahl, Carl. 1991. Strategies for Survival and Sharing in the Cajun Courir de Mardi Gras. Unpublished paper delivered at 1991 American Folklore Society.

_____. 1996. The Presence of the Past in the Country Cajun Mardi Gras. Journal of Folklore Research 33 (2 ) : 101 7 -127

_____. 2001. Notes on Blackface. Journal of American Folklore 114. 445 (2001).

Louisiana Travel Promotion Association. Louisiana Official Tour Guide 1991. Baton Rouge: LouisanaOffice of Tourism, 1991.

Mardi Gras. 2001.: Mardi Gras. Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, (October 7, 2001).

Mardi Gras. Louisiana Travel, (October 7, 2001).

Louisiana Office of Tourism. Mardi Gras: A Louisiana Celebration. 1991. Baton Rouge: Louisana Office of Tourism, 1991.

Mardi Gras in Cajun Country: Mardi Gras Magic. 1992 Lafayette. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau, Lafayette, Louisiana.

Mardi Gras in Lafayette, Louisiana. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, 2002.

Mardi Gras in Rural Acadiana. Louisiana State University at Eunice, (7 October 2001).

Mardi Gras in South Louisiana. Cajun Life (October October 7, 2001).

Mardi Gras With a Cajun Accent. Travel Agent, . (7 October 2001).

Miller, Larry. Interview with author. October 9, 2001. Notes.

Morgan, Bruce. Interview with author, September 25, 2001. Tape recording.

Oster, Harry. 1964. "La Danse de Mardi Gras," in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States, ed. Richard M. Dorson. Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, pp. 276 -288.

Oster, Harry and Revon Reed. 1960. Country Cajun Mardi Gras. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 1 (4): 1 -17.

Regis, Helen. 2001. Blackness and the Politics of Memory in the New Orleans second Line. American Ethnologist 28(4):752 -777.

Rider, Russell. Interview with Jim Metzner for Savvy Traveler. 8 February 2000.

Schedule of Events. 1994. Flyer for City of Eunice.

Sexton, Rocky. 1999. Cajun Mardi Gras: Cultural Objectification and Symbolic Appropriation in a French Tradition. Ethnology 38(4): 297 -313.

Spitzer, Nicholas R. 1986. Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rural French Louisiana. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Sponsors. Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival,

Staub, Shalom. 1988. Folklore and Authenticity: A Myopic Marriage in Public sector Programs. In The Conservation of Culture: Folklorisis and the Public sector, ed. Burt Feintuch, pp. 166 -182. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Stern, Stephen and John Allan Cicala., eds. 1991. Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras. Tee Mamou -Iota Folklife Festival, (15 March 2003)

Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival Association. Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival. 1989. Tee Mamou -Iota Mardi Gras Folklife Festival Association, Iota, Louisiana.

The Eunice News. "Mardi Gras Run Rules, Plans Told." February 27, 1992.

The Soul of Southwest Louisiana: An African -American Visitors' Guide for Lafayette and Lake Charles. 2000. Brochure by Lafayette Convention and Visitors Bureau, Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Arts & Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana. Lafayette and Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The Times ofAcadiana, February 19, 1992 to February 26, 2003.

Toelken, Barre. 1991. Ethnic Selection and Intensification in the Native American Powwow. In Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life, ed. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala, pp. 137 -158.

_____. 1996. The Dynamics of Folklore (revised and expanded edition.) Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Tuleja, Tad, ed. 1997. Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

Vermilionville Historic Foundation. Venez Nous Voir a Vermilionville! 1997. Vermilionville Historic Foundation: Lafayette, Louisiana

Ware, Carolyn. 1994. Reading the Rules Backward: Cajun Women and Mardi Gras. Unpublished dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

_____. 1995. "I Read the Rules Backward: Women, Symbolic Inversion, and the Cajun Mardi Gras Run." Southern Folklore 52(2): 137 -160.

_____. 2001. 'Anything to Act Crazy': Cajun Women and Mardi Gras Disguise. Journal of American Folklore 114(445) :225 -247.

_____. 2003. Making a Show for the People: Cajun Mardi Gras as Public Display. In Signifying Serpents & Mardi Gras Runners: Representing Identity in Selected Souths, ed. Celeste Ray and Luke Eric Lassiter. Southern Anthropological Proceedings, No. 36. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press.

Whisnant, David. 1983. all That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

_____. 1988. "Public sector Folklore as Intervention: Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future." In The Conservation of Culture, ed. Burt Feintuch. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, pp. 233-47.

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.