American Folklore Society
2000 October 25-29
Following The Way of the Masks
[1: Map of Louisiana.] This paper begins with an apology to those of you who came to learn more about that particular dish which has become an icon for south Louisiana. While I continue to research the geographies of gumbo, that work is not yet sufficiently fine to draw the lines I wanted to draw for you today. I am prepared, however, to map out another set of geographies across the same terrain, and in the process discover history, as the gumbo work also promised. [2: Mermentau Mardi Gras mask.] The particular history I have in mind is the development of the Mermentau Mardi Gras run, especially its mask, and its relationship to its neighboring Mardi Gras runs, particularly the Tee Mamou run. [3: Map of territories.]
For those in need of reminding of the geography of the country Mardi Gras runs, they describe a patchwork of territories are mostly massed in an area delimited to the west by Route 165, to the north by Louisiana 10, to the east by I-49, and to the south by Route 90. The newer I-10 in fact ran through a few territories and displaced them. The area known as Tee Mamou is firmly in the center of this geography of masquerade and community-making. It is west of the town of Iota, falling between Bayou Nezpique and Bayou des Cannes, forming the small end of the Mamou prairie, thus Tee Mamou, as it reaches south. The town of Mermentau itself sits just below the cove of land, anses as they are called in south Louisiana, cast by the two bayous who form, with the contribution of Bayou Plaquemine Brule, the Mermentau River. [4: Tee Mamou Mardi Gras.]
The Tee Mamou Mardi Gras runs have come to be, justifiably, well known—though fortunately not as heavily documented as the runs in Elton, Basile, or worse, Mamou, and Eunice. There are two runs, one for the women on the Saturday before Mardi Gras and one for the men on the Tuesday of Mardi Gras. Both runs can be characterized as energetic and playful. [5: Tee Mamou Mardi Gras mask.]
What catches almost everyone’s attention, apart from the usual-unusual Mardi Gras antics, are the Tee Mamou masks, with their protruding, hooked, or drooping (depending on how you look at it), noses that protrude from colorful patchworks of appliqués or needlepoint that further disguise the faces behind the wire screen of the masks. The nose, they say, is good for sticking in all the business during the rest of the year where it normally does not belong. During Mardi Gras, runners, especially women, take great delight in coming in close, pushing the nose into your face, challenging you to discern who that is behind the bell that jingles at the end of the nose. [6: Mermentau Mardi Gras mask.]
That was all on my first Mardi Gras Saturday back in Louisiana. The next morning, Sunday, I joined Barry south of Tee Mamou, as we tried to track down a Mardi Gras which had been unknown to him until the previous year. “All I know is that they start in Estherwood,” he said. “We’ll just have to drive around until we find them.” Criss-crossing the rice fields south of Interstate Ten, we triangulated the Mardi Gras as it reached a town along its route, and it was there that I glimpsed for the first time the mask which is characteristic of the Mermentau Mardi Gras and is almost entirely the work of one mask-maker, Lou Trahan, who came up with the design in 1993 when the Mermentau run was revived.
My interest in this particular historical moment, the moment in which the Mermentau mask arises and distinguishes itself from its neighbor the Tee Mamou mask itself follows another moment, a moment in which Claude Lévi-Strauss attempts to articulate the sets of relations governing the forms of masks among certain groups of the native peoples of the northwest Pacific coast. [7: Swaihwé mask.]
In the first part of The Way of the Masks, Lévi-Strauss pursues a description and analysis of the Xwéxwé mask, a mask that the Kwakiutl borrowed from the Salish. Having completed his plastic and semantic analysis of the Xwéxwé mask, Lévi-Strauss speculates, coyly, that it must be possible to deduce the features of a mask that would stand in opposition, and thus also in correlation, to the Xwéxwé mask. He proceeds to an inversion of the plastic dimension first:
- if the Xwéxwé mask tends toward being white in color, then its opposite will tend toward black or dark hues;
- if the Xwéxwé mask and its costume are adorned with feathers, then the other mask, if it is to entail trimmings of animal origin, will be adorned with fur
- if the Xwéxwé mask has protruding eyes, then its opposite will invert that feature;
- if the Xwéxwé mask has a wide-open mouth and an enormous tongue, then the other mask will preclude display of this organ;
- finally, he notes, “one would expect that the origin myths, the respective religious, social, and economic connotations of the two types, will have between them the same dialectical relationships (of symmetry, of contrast, or of contradiction) as those previously noted from the plastic point of view alone” (57).
It is no surprise, but still a great delight, that such a mask exists. [8: Dzonokwa mask.] The Dzonokwa mask is all cavities, holes where the Xwéxwé mask has protrusions, protuberances, a transformation which I mark here as we make our way back to the Louisiana prairies.
Not only do the plastic forms of these masks undergo transformations, one inverting the other, but the semantic functions are transformed as well. In the case of the Xwéxwé mask, its meaning is reversed as it passes from the Salish, where it is the source and symbol of wealth, to the Kwakiutl, where the mask prevents “spectators from enriching themselves instead of helping them to do so” (92). The Kwakiutl Dzonokwa mask, while an inversion of the Salish Swaihwé’s plastic form, dispenses wealth, the exact same fuction that the Salish mask performs. There are other transformations as well, which Lévi- Strauss establishes in his usual virtuosic way, that lead him to posit a formula which he states as: “When, from one group to another, the plastic form is preserved, the semantic function is inverted. On the other hand, when the semantic function is retained, it is the plastic form that is inverted” (93, italics in original). His diagram looks like this.[9: Lévi-Strauss’ diagram.]
Lévi-Strauss’ larger point is that a mask does not exist in isolation: “ it supposes other real or potential masks by its side, masks that might have been chosen in its stead and substituted for it” (144). In trying to solve a particular mystery, that of the relationships between Northwest coast masks, he ends up exploring a much more nebulous, and perhaps treacherous, landscape, that of style in art. Whether it be among groups of people variously imagined as primitive or isolated or otherwise out-of-touch to modern sensibilities or successive generations within the same society—that is, modernism gives rise to postmodernism which will, or has, certainly give rise to something else—the originality of each style “does not preclude borrowings: it stems from a conscious or unconscious wish to declare itself different, to choose from among all the possibilities some that the art of [the other, be it removed in time or in space, historical or ethnographic] rejected” (144). Indeed, Lévi-Strauss goes on to note that “it would be misleading to imagine … the a mask and, more generally, a sculpture or a painting may be interpreted each for itself, according to what it represents or to the aesthetic or ritual use for which it is destined” (144). [10: Tee Mamou Mardi Gras.]
At last year’s meetings, Barry Jean outlined, in brief, the history of the contemporary study of the country Mardi Gras run in southwest Louisiana. In the first moment of interest, folklorists were interested in establishing the historical precedents and connections that the Mardi Gras has to Medieval and even earlier European festivals. The whips and the whipping; the capuchons, miters, and mortar boards; as well as the songs and other forms leapt back in time, into literature, into history.
Having argued the roots of the Mardi Gras, scholars were drawn to how the runs manifest, indeed even compose, the communities in which they run. That is, how the kaleidoscope of color and chaos is a carefully choreographed dance between spectators and runners, neighbors or strangers during the year, but in a moment so breathtaking that it catches everyone unawares each time it happens, individuals are joined together on a stage which is the world itself. What then could I bring to the scholarly run? My training in material culture made sure I had Lévi-Strauss in my backpocket as followed my colleagues into the field, or better, into the prairies, and it was the Xwéxwé and Dzonokwa masks that stared back at me, first on Saturday in Tee Mamou and then on Sunday in Mermentau. I have already described in brief the Tee Mamou masks, but another image will serve to remind us of the characteristic features that we need to remember as we move forward in our analysis. [11: Tee Mamou Mardi Gras with mask on.]
[11: Lou and Dale Trahan.] Lou and her husband Dale live in Iota, leading one to believe that they really belong to the closer run of Tee Mamou, but that would be to mistake some distinct geographic lines
[12: Mermentau Mardi Gras map.] South of Bayou Plaquemine Brule lie the towns of Mermentau, Estherwood, Midland, and Morse.  Rice fields. The land stretches flat to make the perfect bed for growing rice, lying as it does, cupped by Bayou Queue de Tortue.  Mermentau Mardi Gras map (2). These four towns are the focus of the Mermentau Mardi Gras, served as they are by one priest. Three stretch along Route 90 as it passes from Crowley to Jennings. South of Mermentau and west of Morse is the area known as Mermentau Cove, through which the Mardi Gras sweeps, running from Estherwood, through Midland, down to Morse.
[13: C’est Bon, Mermentau.] In 1993, The Mermentatu Mardi Gras run began when some of Dale Trahan’s coworkers at the shipyard asked him to help them organize a run to support their church. Most of the activity has centered on C’est Bon, the restaurant next to the gas station where the idea for the run originated.
Dale Trahan had run in the Egan-Iota Mardi Gras, which disbanded when its capitaine died.
Lou Trahan learned to make masks, she says, by observing other Mardi Gras masks. So she knew to start with wire-screen masks. The first mask she made was with a piece of used window screen, because she didn’t want to buy something she might mess up. The noses and mouths arose out of her previous experience with soft sculpture, dolls made out of foam and batting and covered with stocking mesh.
When the run began,�
Lou is very proud of the construction of her masks and capuchons: joints are sewn and not stapled or glued.
Dale Trahan noted, as we talked about the construction of the masks, that the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras is “a lot rougher.” I asked him what he meant by that.�
“They’re rough. Their captains whip them with sack-braided ropes,” Dale said.
“They have the rice sacks that are sliced, braided, and wet and they pop them with that because they’re cutting up. Our Mardi Gras isn’t like that. Most of the places we go it’s families and old people. So we dance with the old people and entertain them while the men chase the chickens,” Lou said.
“That’s one of the parts that the women who run with us liked: they weren’t going to get beat. You can be as rough as you want to be, but we don’t have the captains there to beat us,” Dale said.
“We have the captains. The captain does go and ask permission before we go. He carries a whip but he doesn’t use it on us,” Lou said.
“He’s got a hat and a cape, and he’s got a whip,” Dale said. “Now,” Dale continued, “We can tell him at the beginning of the day that you’re going to have to whip me, and he’ll pop us, when we want to get popped, especially when we’re performing in front of the people. You see, if we’re a little rowdy they enjoy it.”
The Trahans are careful to point out that the Mermentau Mardi Gras has tried hard not to take away from the other runs. They don’t sing a Mardi Gras song. The costumes are similar, they say, but “the masks are different because I don’t use the kinds of noses and stuff they use on the face.” Why? “I didn’t want to make it like theirs and the soft sculptures one I make are a lot easier to stick onto the screen. They hold better.”
Awareness of other traditions.
DT: Lake Arthur started a group. Some of them from Lake Charles started a run in Lake Arthur, where they run a country style a few places and they have a parade down Main Street in Lake Arthur. They asked us to join.
LT: Their Mardi Gras is a little different because Lake Charles has the ritzy Mardi Gras, the New Orleans type Mardi Gras. They had people wanting to join the Lake Arthur Mardi Gras, so they had half the people in Mardi Gras costumes like we dress and the other half was dressed in the ritzy kind of costumes.�
The captain belongs to the church in Mermentau. The priest of the church has four towns: Estherwood, Midland, Morse, and Mermentau. They start in Mermentau and go right to the church in Estherwood, timing their arrival for the ending of mass in the latter. After passing through Mermentau Cove, they head to where adults and children are waiting for them back in Mermentau, near C’est Bon. The kids save up money throughout the year and take great delight in peppering the Mardi Gras with coins. They pass through every street in Mermentau. The money goes to all the churches. To everybody, as the Trahans say. The first year they colleted three hundred dollars. This past year, they collected seventeen hundred. “And that’s not with the gumbo,” Dale says. People gather at the church hall in Mermentau and eats gumbo while waiting for the Mardi Gras to arrive. When the Mardi Gras arrives, there is yet another rain of money—they picked up over a thousand dollars last year, Dale noted. The gumbo itself is another source of revenue, part of a longer-standing tradition of a church gumbo the Sunday before Mardi Gras.�
The Mardi Gras comes into the hall twice: once to run the hall and then again to be judged in a costume contest.�
There are some limits: it has to be the Mardi Gras costume, the capuchon, and the screen mask, Lou said. One year they had someone come as Pocahantas, they let them run but told them that next year they needed to come in costume. That’s not Mardi Gras.�
They put gloves on to make sure that spectators cannot tell if it is a man or a woman. That’s our tradition, they said.�
They are careful whom they admit because they don’t want any trouble. As the Trahans point out, during the last part of the run when the Mardi Gras weaves its way through the town of Mermentau, they pass through the black part of town, and they don’t want anybody who will cause trouble.
Elizabeth Tonkin notes that “When masks are used to make actors collectively anonymous, they reverse contemporary individualist expectations, in which masks are assumed to hide the real personality, not to contribute a revealing transformation. Mask use always implies a philosophy of personality, but not a single, specific one” (231).
Fabre, Daniel. 1992. Carnaval ou la fête � l’envers. Paris: Gallimard.
Kinser, Samuel. 1990. Carnival, American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1982. The Way of the Masks. Tr. Sylvia Modelski. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Lindahl, Carl and Carolyn Ware. 1997. Cajun Mardi Gras Masks. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press.
Tonkin, Elizabeth. 1992. Masks. In Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: A Communications-centered Handbook, 225-232. Ed. Richard Bauman. New York: Oxford University Press.
Please note that this paper is for presentation purposes only and not for citation or circulation without the author’s permission.
� This a crude and rather contemporary set of boundaries. The territories described here look to older lines created by the topography of the prairies and bayous themselves.� � A brief note about some of the French involved here: Mamou is the name of the prairie. Tee is a conventional contraction of petite often used in south Louisiana. Nezpique refers to the custom of nose piercing among one of the American Indian groups encountered by the Cadiens in south Louisiana. Anse is simply French for “cove.” Queue de tortue is, obviously, “tail of the turtle.” Plaquemine Brule is translated as “burnt persimmons.” Cannes is the plural of the word for “cane.” � In Salish, the mask is Swaihwé. � Lévi-Strauss notes that “generally speaking, the term Dzonokwa designates a class of supernatural beings, most often female, but endowed with breasts no matter what their sex. … The Dzonokwas dwell far inside the woods; hey are savage giantesses, also ogresses, who kidnap the Indians’ children to eat them. Yet the relations they maintain with humans are ambiguous, sometimes hostile, sometimes imbued with a certain complicity” (59).