Living Tradition at Pontiac Point
Bells, whistles, dance, and chants drape Simcoe and Surrey St. on Mardi Gras morning. The Mardi Gras Indian walking parade at Pontiac Point is a staple of Black Carnival, inspiring unity within the community. Lafayette Creole Mardi Gras introduced their original style of costume-making in the 1950s. These costumes are suggestive of our New Orleans neighbors', yet widely differing in approach and meaning. New generations continue to innovate processes and performance in determination that Black Mardi Gras traditions persist.
Participants work tirelessly throughout the year to complete their costumes for Mardi Gras day. Some begin designing next year's wears as soon as the day ends. Each bead, sequin, streamer, and ribbon is meticulously glued or fastened by hand. The patterns, parading, and costume styling resemble the festival roots of the Caribbean.
Old timers, such as Alton "lil tiger" Armstrong, Patrick Frances, Mr. Bucket, Mr. John, Mama Cat, Miss Dolly Mae (The Queen), and countless others came together over the past couple of decades to sew costumes, wear costumes, bear wisdom, or support the process. OG Big Chief said that kids weren't allowed out of the front yard on Carnival Day when he was coming up, so these community members made it a mission to make parades accessible to their neighborhoods, especially children.
According to Marcia Gaudet, "Mardi Gras, in the predominantly Creole and African American 12th Street area of Lafayette, Louisiana, reflects both the cultural diversity of Creoles of color and the dynamics of asserting Creole identity in a region more widely known as Cajun country." To some, Mardi Gras simply represents enjoyment. To others, it is a reminder to come together and celebrate life, that our days are not promised.
"I don't know what others feel like the Mardi Gras Indian tradition symbolizes, but I think when Mardi Gras day comes around, and we put on these costumes, there's no more beefing in the hood. Everybody's getting together like a family reunion, showing people that Lafayette can get together and have fun," said Ronald aka OG Big Chief, the winner of the 2022 Miami Moon Masking Competition.
OG Big Chief fell in love with Mardi Gras as a child. He reminisces about the Mardi Gras' he'd spent in his front yard, awaiting old-school performers to roam the streets.
"This tradition was passed down from watching the old schoolers do it because it was a tradition for them. It was a day when they got together in fellowship, in brotherhood. I want to continue and pass it down to the younger generation. I want to remind them to relax their mind, stay out of trouble, put their mind into art, and find something constructive to do. That's my theory."
OG Big Chief said it didn't matter whether he saved ten children or a thousand. If he has turned a single person's life around toward constructive goals, he did his job. He and many others make these costumes yearly to secure positive and artistic futures for the children they lead.'
"A lot of the old schoolers that passed on, I wish they were still here, so they could look back at me and say: 'You know what, I taught this young man something. If I didn't do nothing right, I taught him something he could continue doing.' So, as I say, I just put it on for my city. I tell many kids that it doesn't matter if you are from the hood or an area they call 'the ghetto.' We don't necessarily have to symbolize that. When I put on that costume, I'm a totally different person. I show them that you don't have to have a lot of money. You don't have to have this. You don't have to have that. All you gotta do is have joy in your heart. And know if God wakes you up, you can put your mind to something and just live free. Cause tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next night: none of that is promised. When I get under that costume, I live for the moment. I don't live for the day. I live for that moment."