September 29, 2010

Local documentarians chronicle Acadiana’s equine traditions. By Walter Pierce

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                                                           Photos by Allison Bohl

The man who will be king is skill and valor in a silver tunic astride his horse, galloping break-neck around the semi-circular track, vanquishing the enemies of the cotton crop — flood, drought, boll weevil, boll worm, silk, rayon and nylon — by collecting their symbolic rings with his lance. He wins a kiss from the maiden. A trophy. Boasting rights.

This medieval scene is from Le Tournoi, a jousting-like tournament with roots in Napoleonic France that was brought to Ville Platte in the 19th century, died out, and was revived after World War II. It’s held every October as part of the Cotton Festival, one of many unique equine traditions native to southwest Louisiana that captured the eye of Breaux Bridge documentary filmmaker Conni Castille.

“I just kept noticing more and more of these horse traditions, and it got me curious as to why we have so many,” says Castille, who slakes her curiosity first in an hour-long radio documentary that will air Tuesday, Oct. 5, on KRVS. A film documentary is in production and will be released in 2011.

Castille turned to UL anthropology professor Ray Brassieur, who has researched the many facets of Cajun and Creole horse culture — trail rides, bush track racing, Mardi Gras courirs — that sprang from ranching on the prairies west of the Atchafalaya Basin. These traditions have their origins in colonial America, when wealthy New Orleans planters established ranching outposts in what is now called Acadiana, leaving slaves to mind the business. The descendents of those slaves became free men of color, some of them inter-marrying with Native Americans. Many identify themselves today as Creoles.

“I would even propose that Creoles were the first American cowboys, way before these romantic notions of the wild, wild West,” adds Castille, who interviewed Cajun jockey Calvin Borel and Creole musician and rancher Geno Delafose, among others, for the documentary.

Ranch culture in southwest Louisiana predates the arrival of the Acadians. Castille characterizes it as an expedient means by which the generally disenfranchised could generate wealth. “Free men of color, Indians, women, could own cattle,” she explains. “And in a lot of ways, especially for free men of color, it symbolized so many things. You might not have been able to afford land to grow a mass crop like sugar cane or cotton, but because of the laws for cattle, for ranching, your cattle could roam au large, so you had no boundaries. It was a much more quick way to get rich, in a sense, to establish yourself, to having freedom without having to own a lot of property.”

Castille and creative partner Allison Bohl, who served as technical producer for the radio documentary, routinely collect top honors20100929-livingind-0102 at film festivals for such documentaries as I Always Do My Collars First, Raised on Rice and Gravy and, most recently, King Crawfish. The horse traditions doc — Castille says she has yet to saddle it with a name — will add to an impressive cache of works that chronicle the quirky quintessence of south Louisiana culture.

Castille also enlisted the expertise of Cajun musician and archivist Kristi Guillory, who researched horse references in our indigenous music.

“If you look at Creole and Cajun music, a lot of them talk about horses and mules,” says Castille. “And I think here, because of our joie or ethos to act crazy, have fun, it was just a matter of time before these horses that were work horses that we used on our farms, we started playing with them, racing them, having Mardi Gras, having the jousting competition in Ville Platte, trail rides. I think that has a lot to do with our culture.”

Castille’s equine traditions radio documentary airs at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 5, on KRVS during the program “Lacouture Lagniappe.” It was funded in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts through its Decentralized Arts Fund and the Cinematic Arts Workshop at UL.

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