I am grateful to by Evan Heimlich for providing me permission to reproduced the following article. DISCLAIMER BY YVON: The above noted is a very interesting article however, be aware I have found a number of inaccuracies, in same.
Acadian-Cajun History and Culture
Acadians are the descendants of a group of French-speaking settlers who migrated from coastal France in the late sixteenth century to establish a French colony called Acadia in the maritime provinces of Canada and part of what is now the state of Maine. Forced out by the British in the mid-sixteenth century, a few settlers remained in Maine, but most resettled in southern Louisiana and are popularly known as Cajuns.
Before 1713, Acadia was a French colony pioneered mostly by settlers from the coastal provinces of Brittany, Normandy, Picardy, and Poitou—a region that suffered great hardships in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In 1628, famine and plague followed the end of a series of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. When social tensions in coastal France ripened, more than 10,000 people left for the colony founded by Samuel Champlain in 1604 known as “La Cadie” or Acadia. The area, which included what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and part of Maine, was one of the first European colonies in North America. The Company of New France recruited colonists from coastal France as indentured servants. Fishermen, farmers, and trappers served for five years to repay the company with their labor for the transportation and materials it had provided. In the New World, colonists forged alliances with local Indians, who generally preferred the settlers from France over those from Britain because, unlike the British who took all the land they could, the coastal French in Acadia did not invade Indian hunting grounds inland.
The early French settlers called themselves “Acadiens” or “Cadiens” (which eventually became Anglicized as “Cajuns”) and were among the first Old World settlers to identify themselves as North Americans. The New World offered them relative freedom and independence from the French upper class. When French owners of Acadian lands tried to collect seignorial rents from settlers who were farming, many Acadians simply moved away from the colonial centers. When France tried legally to control their profit from their trade in furs or grain, Acadians traded illegally; they even traded with New England while France and England waged war against each other.
As French colonial power waned, Great Britain captured Acadia in 1647; the French got it back in 1670 only to lose it again to the British in the 1690s. Acadians adapted to political changes as their region repeatedly changed hands. Before the British took the Nova Scotia region, they waged the Hundred Year War against French colonial forces in a struggle over the region’s territory. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which failed to define realistic boundaries for the French and English territories after Queen Anne’s War, converted most of the peninsula into a British colony. Despite British attempts to impose its language and culture, Acadian culture persisted. Large families increased their numbers and new settlers spoke French. The British tried to settle Scottish and other Protestant colonists in Acadia to change the region’s French-Catholic culture to a British-Protestant one. The French-speaking Acadians, however, held onto their own culture.
In 1745 the British threatened to expel the Acadians unless they pledged allegiance to the King of England. Unwilling to subject themselves to any king (especially the King of England who opposed the French and Catholics), Acadians refused, claiming that they were not allied with France. They also did not want to join the British in fights against the Indians, who were their allies and relatives. To dominate the region militarily, culturally, and agriculturally without interference, the British expelled the Acadians, dispersing them to colonies such as Georgia and South Carolina. This eventually led the British to deport Acadians in what became known as Le Grand Dèrangement, or the Expulsion of 1755.
The roundup and mass deportation of Acadians, which presaged British domination of much of North America, involved much cruelty, as indicated by letters from British governor, Major Charles Lawrence. In an attempt to eliminate the Acadians from Acadia, the British packed them by the hundreds into the cargo holds of ships, where many died from the cold and smallpox. At the time, Acadians numbered about 15,000, however, the Expulsion killed almost half the population. Of the survivors and those who escaped expulsion, some found their way back to the region, and many drifted through England, France, the Caribbean, and other colonies. Small pockets of descendants of Acadians can still be found in France. In 1763 there were more than 6,000 Acadians in New England. Of the thousands sent to Massachusetts, 700 reached Connecticut and then escaped to Montreal. Many reached the Carolinas; some in Georgia were sold as slaves; many eventually were taken to the West Indies as indentured servants. Most, however, made their way down the Mississippi River to Louisiana. At New Orleans and other southern Louisiana ports, about 2,400 Acadians arrived between 1763 and 1776 from the American colonies, the West Indies, St. Pierre and Miquelon islands, and Acadia/Nova Scotia.
To this day, many Acadians have strong sentiments about the expulsion 225 years ago. In 1997, Warren A. Perrin, an attorney from Lafayette, Louisiana, filed a lawsuit against the British Crown for the expulsion in 1775. Perrin is not seeking monetary compensation. Instead, he wants the British government to formally apologize for the suffering it caused Acadians and build a memorial to honor them. The British Foreign Office is fighting the lawsuit, arguing it cannot be held responsible for something that happened more than two centuries ago.
According to Cajun Country, after Spain gained control of Louisiana in the mid-1760s, Acadian exiles “who had been repatriated to France volunteered to the king of Spain to help settle his newly acquired colony.” The Spanish government accepted their offer and paid for the transport of 1,600 settlers. When they arrived in Louisiana in 1785, colonial forts continued Spain’s services to Acadian pioneers (which officially began with a proclamation by Governor Galvez in February of 1778). Forts employed and otherwise sponsored the settlers in starting their new lives by providing tools, seed corn, livestock, guns, medical services, and a church.
A second group of Acadians came 20 years later. Louisiana attracted Acadians who wanted to rejoin their kin and Acadian culture. After decades of exile, immigrants came from many different regions. The making of “Acadiana” in southern Louisiana occurred amid a broader context of French-speaking immigration to the region, including the arrival of European and American whites, African and Caribbean slaves, and free Blacks. Like others, such as Mexicans who lived in annexed territory of the United States, Cajuns and other Louisianans became citizens when the United States acquired Louisiana from Napoleon through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
The diaspora of Acadians in the United States interweaves with the diaspora of French Canadians. In 1990, one-third as many Americans (668,000) reported to the U.S. Census Bureau as “Acadian/Cajun” as did Americans reporting “French Canadian” (2,167,000). Louisiana became the new Acadian homeland and “creolized,” or formed a cultural and ethnic hybrid, as cultures mixed. French settlers in Louisiana adapted to the subtropics. Local Indians taught them, as did the slaves brought from Africa by settlers to work their plantations. When French settlers raised a generation of sons and daughters who grew up knowing the ways of the region—unlike the immigrants— Louisianans called these native-born, locally adapted people “Creoles.” Louisianans similarly categorized slaves—those born locally were also “Creoles.” By the time the Acadians arrived, Creoles had established themselves economically and socially.
French Creoles dominated Louisiana, even after Spain officially took over the colony in the mid-eighteenth century and some Spanish settled there. Louisiana also absorbed immigrants from Germany, England, and New England, in addition to those from Acadia. Spanish administrators welcomed the Acadians to Louisiana. Their large families increased the colony’s population and they could serve the capital, New Orleans, as a supplier of produce. The Spanish expected the Acadians, who were generally poor, small-scale farmers who tended to keep to themselves, not to resist their administration.
At first, Spanish administrators regulated Acadians toward the fringes of Louisiana’s non-Indian settlement. As Louisiana grew, some Cajuns were pushed and some voluntarily moved with the frontier. Beginning in 1764, Cajun settlements spread above New Orleans in undeveloped regions along the Mississippi River. This area later became known as the Acadian coast. Cajun settlements spread upriver, then down the Bayou Lafourche, then along other rivers and bayous. People settled along the waterways in lines, as they had done in Acadia/Nova Scotia. Their houses sat on narrow plots of land that extended from the riverbank into the swamps. The settlers boated from house to house, and later built a road parallel to the bayou, extending the levees as long as 150 miles. The settlement also spread to the prairies, swamps, and the Gulf Coast. There is still a small colony of Acadians in the St. John Valley of northeastern Maine, however.
Soon after the Louisiana Purchase, the Creoles pushed many Acadians westward, off the prime farmland of the Mississippi levees, mainly by buying their lands. Besides wanting the land, many Creole sugar-planters wanted the Cajuns to leave the vicinity so that the slaves on their plantations would not see Cajun examples of freedom and self-support.
After the Cajuns had re consolidated their society, a second exodus, on a much smaller scale, spread the Cajuns culturally and geographically. For example, a few Acadians joined wealthy Creoles as owners of plantations, rejecting their Cajun identity for one with higher social standing. Although some Cajuns stayed on the rivers and bayous or in the swamps, many others headed west to the prairies where they settled not in lines but in small, dispersed coves. As early as 1780, Cajuns headed westward into frontier lands and befriended Indians whom others feared. By the end of the nineteenth century, Cajuns had established settlements in the Louisiana-Texas border region. Texans refer to the triangle of the Acadian colonies of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange as Cajun Lapland because that is where Louisiana “laps over” into Texas.
Heading westward, Cajuns first reached the eastern, then the western prairie. In the first region, densely settled by Cajuns, farmers grew corn and cotton. On the western prairie, farmers grew rice and ranchers raised cattle. This second region was thinly settled until the late 1800s when the railroad companies lured Midwesterners to the Louisiana prairies to grow rice. The arrival of Midwesterners again displaced many Cajuns; however, some remained on the prairies in clusters of small farms. A third region of Cajun settlement, to the south of the prairies and their waterways, were the coastal wetlands—one of the most distinctive regions in North America and one central to the Cajun image. The culture and seafood cuisine of these Cajuns has represented Cajuns to the world.
Reenactment of an early Acadian dining-room scene at the Babineau House in Caraquet, New Brunswick, Canada.
Life for Cajuns in swamps, which periodically flood, demanded adaptations such as building houses on stilts. When floods wrecked their houses, Cajuns rebuilt them. In the late 1800s, Cajun swamp dwellers began to build and live on houseboats. Currently, mobile homes with additions and large porches stand on stilts ten feet above the swamps. Cajuns and other Louisianans also established and maintained camps for temporary housing in marshes, swamps, and woods. For the Acadians, many of whom were hunters and trappers, this was a strong tradition. At first, a camp was only a temporary dwelling in order to make money. Eventually, Cajuns did not need to live in camps, because they could commute daily from home by car or powerboat. By that time, however, Cajuns enjoyed and appreciated their camps. As settlements grew, so did the desire to get away to hunt and fish; today, many Cajun families maintain a camp for recreation purposes.
ACCULTURATION AND ASSIMILATION
Cajuns have always been considered a marginal group, a minority culture. Language, culture, and kinship patterns have kept them separate, and they have maintained their sense of group identity despite difficulties. Cajun settlement patterns have isolated them and Cajun French has tended to keep its speakers out of the English-speaking mainstream.
Acadians brought a solidarity with them to Louisiana. As one of the first groups to cross the Atlantic and adopt a new identity, they felt connected to each other by their common experience. Differences in backgrounds separated the Acadians from those who were more established Americans. Creole Louisianans, with years of established communities in Louisiana, often looked down on Acadians as peasants. Some Cajuns left their rural Cajun communities and found acceptance, either as Cajuns or by passing as some other ethnicity. Some Cajuns became gentleman planters, repudiated their origins, and joined the upper-class (white) Creoles. Others learned the ways of local Indians, as Creoles before them had done, and as the Cajuns themselves had done earlier in Acadia/Nova Scotia.
Because Cajuns usually married among themselves, as a group they do not have many surnames; however, the original population of Acadian exiles in Louisiana grew, especially by incorporating other people into their group. Colonists of Spanish, German, and Italian origins, as well as Americans of English-Scotch-Irish stock, became thoroughly acculturated and today claim Acadian descent. Black Creoles and white Cajuns mingled their bloodlines and cultures; more recently, Louisiana Cajuns include Yugoslavs and Filipinos.
Economics helped Cajuns stay somewhat separate. The majority of Cajuns farmed, hunted, and/or fished; their livelihoods hardly required them to assimilate. Moreover, until the beginning of the twentieth century, U.S. corporate culture had relatively little impact on southern Louisiana. The majority of Cajuns did not begin to Americanize until the turn of the twentieth century, when several factors combined to quicken the pace. These factors included the nationalistic fervor of the early 1900s, followed by World War I. Perhaps the most substantial change for Cajuns occurred when big business came to extract and sell southern Louisiana’s oil. The discovery of oil in 1901 in Jennings, Louisiana, brought in outsiders and created salaried jobs. Although the oil industry is the region’s main employer, it is also a source of economic and ecological concern because it represents the region’s main polluter, threatening fragile ecosystems and finite resources.
Although the speaking of Cajun French has been crucial to the survival of Cajun traditions, it has also represented resistance to assimilation. Whereas Cajuns in the oilfields spoke French to each other at work (and still do), Cajuns in public schools were forced to abandon French because the compulsory Education Act of 1922 banned the speaking of any other language but English at school or on school grounds. While some teachers labeled Cajun French as a low-class and ignorant mode of speech, other Louisianans ridiculed the Cajuns as uneducable. As late as 1939, reports called the Cajuns “North America’s last unassimilated [white] minority;” Cajuns referred to themselves, even as late as World War II, as ” le français, ” and all English-speaking outsiders as ” les Americains. ”
The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the education and acculturation of Cajuns into the American mainstream. Other factors affecting the assimilation of the Cajuns were the improvement of transportation, the leveling effects of the Great Depression, and the development of radio and motion pictures, which introduced young Cajuns to other cultures. Yet Cajun culture survived and resurged. After World War II, Cajun culture boomed as soldiers returned home and danced to Cajun bands, thereby renewing Cajun identity. Cajuns rallied around their traditional music in the 1950s, and in the 1960s this music gained attention and acceptance from the American mainstream. On the whole, though, the 1950s and 1960s were times of further mainstreaming for the Cajuns. As network television and other mass media came to dominate American culture, the nation’s regional, ethnic cultures began to weaken. Since the 1970s, Cajuns have exhibited renewed pride in their heritage and consider themselves a national resource. By the 1980s, ethnicities first marginalized by the American mainstream became valuable as regional flavors; however, while Cajuns may be proud of the place that versions of their music and food occupy in the mainstream, they—especially the swamp Cajuns—are also proud of their physical and social marginality.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Cajun society closely knits family members and neighbors who tend to depend on each other socially and economically, and this cooperation helps to maintain their culture. According to Cajun Country, “The survival—indeed the domination— of Acadian culture was a direct result of the strength of traditional social institutions and agricultural practices that promoted economic self-sufficiency and group solidarity.” Cajuns developed customs to bring themselves together. For example, before roads, people visited by boat; before electrical amplification and telephones, people sang loudly in large halls, and passed news by shouting from house to house. And when Cajuns follow their customs, their culture focuses inwardly on the group and maintains itself.
Cajuns maintain distinctive values that predate the industrial age. Foremost among these, perhaps, is a traditional rejection of protocols of social hierarchy. When speaking Cajun French, for instance, Cajuns use the French familiar form of address, tu, rather than vous (except in jest) and do not address anyone as monsieur. Their joie de vivre is legendary (manifested in spicy food and lively dancing), as is their combativeness. Cajun traditions help make Cajuns formidable, mobile adversaries when fighting, trapping, hunting, or fishing. Cajun boaters invented a flatboat called the bateau, to pass through shallow swamps. They also built European-style luggers and skiffs, and the pirogue, based on Indian dugout canoes. Cajuns often race pirogues; or, two competitors stand at opposite ends on one and try to make each other fall in the water first. Fishers hold their own competitions, sometimes called “fishing rodeos.”
Cajuns value horses, too. American cowboy culture itself evolved partly out of one of its earliest ranching frontiers on Louisiana’s Cajun prairies. Cajun ranchers developed a tradition called the barrel or buddy pickup, which evolved into a rodeo event. Today, Cajuns enjoy horse racing, trail-riding clubs, and Mardi Gras processions, called courses, on horseback.
Cajuns also enjoy telling stories and jokes during their abundant socializing. White Cajuns have many folktales in common with black Creoles—for example, stories about buried treasure abound in Louisiana. One reason for this proliferation was Louisiana’s early and close ties to the Caribbean where piracy was rampant. Also, many people actually did bury treasure in Louisiana to keep it from banks or—during the Civil War—from invading Yankees. Typically, the stories describe buried treasure guarded by ghosts. Cajuns relish telling stories about moonshiners, smugglers, and contraband runners who successfully fool and evade federal agents.
Many Cajun beliefs fall into the mainstream’s category of superstition, such as spells ( gris-gris, to both Cajuns and Creoles) and faith healing. In legends, Madame Grandsdoigts uses her long fingers to pull the toes of naughty children at night, and the werewolf, known as loup garou, prowls. Omens appear in the form of blackbirds, cows, and the moon. For example, according to Cajun Country: “When the tips of a crescent moon point upward, [the weather] is supposed to be dry for a week. A halo of light around a full moon supposedly means clear weather for as many days as there are stars visible inside the ring.”
Cajun cuisine, perhaps best known for its hot, redpepper seasoning, is a blend of styles. Acadians brought with them provincial cooking styles from France. Availability of ingredients determined much of Cajun cuisine. Frontier Cajuns borrowed or invented recipes for cooking turtle, alligator, raccoon, possum, and armadillo, which some people still eat. Louisianans’ basic ingredients of bean and rice dishes—milled rice, dried beans, and cured ham or smoked sausage—were easy to store over relatively long periods. Beans and rice, like gumbo and crawfish, have become fashionable cuisine in recent times. They are still often served with cornbread, thus duplicating typical nineteenth-century poor Southern fare. Cajun cooking is influenced by the cuisine of the French, Acadian, Spanish, German, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Native American cultures.
A main ingredient in Louisiana Cajunseafood cooking is crawfish.
Gumbo, a main Cajun dish, is a prime metaphor for creolization because it draws from several cultures. Its main ingredient, okra, also gave the dish its name; the vegetable, called ” guingombo, ” was first imported from western Africa. Cayenne, a spicy seasoning used in subtropical cuisines, represents Spanish and Afro-Caribbean influences. Today Louisianans who eat gumbo with rice, usually call gumbo made with okra gumbo fèvi, to distinguish it from gumbo filè, which draws on French culinary tradition for its base, a roux. Just before serving, gumbo filè (also called filè gumbo ) is thickened by the addition of powdered sassafras leaves, one of the Native American contributions to Louisiana cooking.
Cajuns thriftily made use of a variety of animals in their cuisine. Gratons , also known as cracklings, were made of pig skin. Internal organs were used in the sausages and boudin . White boudin is a spicy rice and pork sausage; red boudin, which is made from the same rice dressing but is flavored and colored with blood, can still be found in neighborhood boucheries. Edible pig guts not made into boudin were cooked in a sauce piquante de dèbris or entrail stew. The intestines were cleaned and used for sausage casings. Meat was carefully removed from the head and congealed for a spicy fromage de tête de cochon (hogshead cheese). Brains were cooked in a pungent brown sauce. Other Cajun specialties include tasso, a spicy Cajun version of jerky, smoked beef and pork sausages (such as andouille made from the large intestines), chourice (made from the small intestines), and chaudin (stuffed stomach).
Perhaps the most representative food of Cajun culture is crawfish, or mudbug. Its popularity is a relatively recent tradition. It was not until the mid-1950s, when commercial processing began to make crawfish readily available, that they gained popularity. They have retained a certain exotic aura, however, and locals like to play upon the revulsion of outsiders faced for the first time with the prospect of eating these delicious but unusual creatures by goading outsiders to suck the “head” (technically, the thorax). Like lobster, crawfish has become a valuable delicacy. The crawfish industry, a major economic force in southern Louisiana, exports internationally. However, nearly 85 percent of the annual crawfish harvest is consumed locally. Other versions of Cajun foods, such as pan-blackened fish and meats, have become ubiquitous. Chef Paul Prudhomme helped bring Cajun cuisine to national prominence.
Cooking is considered a performance, and invited guests often gather around the kitchen stove or around the barbecue pit (more recently, the butane grill) to observe the cooking and comment on it. Guests also help, tell jokes and stories, and sing songs at events such as outdoor crawfish, crab, and shrimp boils in the spring and summer, and indoor gumbos in winter.
The history of Cajun music goes back to Acadia/ Nova Scotia, and to France. Acadian exiles, who had no instruments such as those in Santo Domingo, danced to reels á bouche, wordless dance music made by only their voices at stopping places on their way to Louisiana. After they arrived in Louisiana, Anglo-American immigrants to Louisiana contributed new fiddle tunes and dances, such as reels, jigs, and hoedowns. Singers also translated English songs into French and made them their own. Accordi to Cajun Country, “Native Americans contributed a wailing, terraced singing style in which vocal lines descend progressively in steps.” Moreover, Cajun music owes much to the music of black Creoles, who contributed to Cajun music as they developed their own similiar music, which became zydeco. Since the nineteenth century, Cajuns and black Creoles have performed together.
This couple is enjoying dancing together at the annual Cajun festival.
Not only the songs, but also the instruments constitute an intercultural gumbo. Traditional Cajun and Creole instruments are French fiddles, German accordians, Spanish guitars, and an assortment of percussion instruments (triangles, washboards, and spoons), which share European and Afro-Caribbean origins. German-American Jewish merchants imported diatonic accordians (shortly after they were invented in Austria early in the nineteenth century), which soon took over the lead instrumental role from the violin. Cajuns improvised and improved the instruments first by bending rake tines, replacing rasps and notched gourds used in Afro-Caribbean music with washboards, and eventually producing their own masterful accordians.
During the rise of the record industry, to sell record players in southern Louisiana, companies released records of Cajun music. Its high-pitched and emotionally charged style of singing, which evolved so that the noise of frontier dance halls could be pierced, filled the airwaves. Cajun music influenced country music; moreover, for a period, Harry Choates’s string band defined Western swing music. Beginning in 1948, Iry Lejeune recorded country music and renditions of Amèe Ardoin’s Creole blues, which Ardoin recorded in the late 1920s. Lejeune prompted “a new wave of old music” and a postwar revival of Cajun culture. Southern Louisiana’s music influenced Hank Williams— whose own music, in turn, has been extremely influential. “Jambalaya” was one of his most successful recordings and was based on a lively but unassuming Cajun two-step called “Grand Texas” or “L’Anse Couche-Couche.” In the 1950s, “swamp pop” developed as essentially Cajun rhythm and blues or rock and roll. In the 1960s, national organizations began to try to preserve traditional Cajun music.
Mardi Gras, which occurs on the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is the carnival that precedes Lent’s denial. French for “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras (pre-Christian Europe’s New Year’s Eve) is based on medieval European adaptations of even older rituals, particularly those including reversals of the social order, in which the lower classes parody the elite. Men dress as women, women as men; the poor dress as rich, the rich as poor; the old as young, the young as old; black as white, white as black.
While most Americans know Mardi Gras as the city of New Orleans celebrates it, rural Cajun Mardi Gras stems from a medieval European procession in which revelers traveled through the countryside performing in exchange for gifts. Those in a Cajun procession, called a course (which traditionally did not openly include women), masquerade across lines of gender, age, race, and class. They also play at crossing the line of life and death with a ritual skit, “The Dead Man Revived,” in which the companions of a fallen actor revive him by dripping wine or beer into his mouth. Participants in a Cajun Mardi Gras course cross from house to house, storming into the yard in a mock-pillage of the inhabitant’s food. Like a trick-or-treat gang, they travel from house to house and customarily get a series of chickens, from which their cooks will make a communal gumbo that night. The celebration continues as a rite of passage in many communities.
Carnival, as celebrated by Afro-Caribbeans (and as a ritual of ethnic impersonation whereby Euro-and Afro-Caribbean Americans in New Orleans chant, sing, dance, name themselves, and dress as Indians), also influences Mardi Gras as celebrated in southern Louisiana. On one hand, the mainstream Mardi Gras celebration retains some Cajun folkloric elements, but the influence of New Orleans invariably supplants the country customs. Conversely, Mardi Gras of white, rural Cajuns differs in its geographic origins from Mardi Gras of Creole New Orleans; some organizers of Cajun Mardi Gras attempt to maintain its cultural specificity.
Cajun Mardi Gras participants traditionally wear masks, the anonymity of which enables the wearers to cross social boundaries; at one time, masks also provided an opportunity for retaliation without punishment. Course riders, who may be accompanied by musicians riding in their own vehicle, might surround a person’s front yard, dismount and begin a ritualistic song and dance. The silent penitence of Lent, however, follows the boisterous transgression of Mardi Gras. A masked ball, as described in Cajun Country, “marks the final hours of revelry before the beginning of Lent the next day. All festivities stop abruptly at midnight, and many of Tuesday’s rowdiest riders can be found on their knees receiving the penitential ashes on their fore-heads on Wednesday.”
Good Friday, which signals the approaching end of Lent, is celebrated with a traditional procession called “Way of the Cross” between the towns of Catahoula and St. Martinville. The stations of the cross, which usually hang on the walls of a church, are mounted on large oak trees between the two towns.
On Christmas Eve, bonfires dot the levees along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This celebration, according to Cajun Country, has European roots: “The huge bonfires … are descendants of the bonfires lit by ancient European civilizations, particularly along the Rhine and Seine rivers, to encourage and reinforce the sun at the winter solstice, its ‘weakest’ moment.” Other holidays are uniquely Cajun and reflect the Catholic church’s involvement in harvests. Priests bless the fields of sugar cane and the fleets of decorated shrimp boats by reciting prayers and sprinkling holy water upon them.
Professional doctors were rare in rural Louisiana and only the most serious of conditions were treated by them. Although the expense of professional medical care was prohibitive even when it was available, rural Cajuns preferred to use folk cures and administered them themselves, or relied on someone adept at such cures. These healers, who did not make their living from curing other Cajuns, were called traiteurs, or treaters, and were found in every community. They also believed that folk practitioners, unlike their professional counterparts, dealt with the spiritual and emotional—not just the physiological— needs of the individual. Each traiteur typically specializes in only a few types of treatment and has his or her own cures, which may involve the laying-on of hands or making the sign of the cross and reciting of prayers drawn from passages of the Bible. Of their practices—some of which have been legitimated today as holistic medicine—some are pre-Christian, some Christian, and some modern. Residual pre-Christian traditions include roles of the full moon in healing, and left-handedness of the treaters themselves. Christian components of Cajun healing draw on faith by making use of Catholic prayers, candles, prayer beads, and crosses. Cajuns’ herbal medicine derives from post-medieval French homeopathic medicine. A more recent category of Cajun cures consists of patent medicines and certain other commercial products.
Some Cajun cures were learned from Indians, such as the application of a poultice of chewing tobacco on bee stings, snakebites, boils, and headaches. Other cures came from French doctors or folk cures, such as treating stomach pains by putting a warm plate on the stomach, treating ring-worm with vinegar, and treating headaches with a treater’s prayers. Some Cajun cures are unique to Louisiana: for example, holding an infection over a burning cane reed, or putting a necklace of garlic on a baby with worms.
Cajuns have a higher-than-average incidence of cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, albinism, and other inherited, recessive disorders, perhaps due to intermarriage with relatives who have recessive genes in common. Other problems, generally attributed to a high-fat diet and inadequate medical care, include diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, stroke, and heart disease.
Cajun French, for the most part, is a spoken, unwritten language filled with colloquialisms and slang. Although the French spoken by Cajuns in different parts of Louisiana varies little, it differs from the standard French of Paris as well as the French of Quebec; it also differs from the French of both white and black Creoles.
Cajun French-speakers hold their lips more loosely than do the Parisians. They tend to shorten phrases, words, and names, and to simplify some verb conjugations. Nicknames are ubiquitous, such as ” ‘tit joe” or ” ‘tit black,” where ” ‘tit ” is slang for ” petite ” or “little.” Cajun French simplifies the tenses of verbs by making them more regular. It forms the present participle of verbs—e.g., “is singing”— in a way that would translate directly as “is after to sing.” So, “Marie is singing,” in Cajun French is ” Marie est apres chanter. ” Another distinguishing feature of Cajun French is that it retains nautical usages, which reflects the history of Acadians as boaters. For example, the word for tying a shoelace is amerrer (to moor [a boat]), and the phrase for making a U-turn in a car is virer de bord (to come about [with a sailboat]).
Generally, Cajun French shows the influence of its specific history in Louisiana and Acadia/Nova Scotia, as well as its roots in coastal France. Since Brittany, in northern coastal France, is heavily Celtic, Cajun French bears “grammatical and other linguistic evidences of Celtic influence.” Some scattered Indian words survive in Cajun French, such as “bayou,” which came from the Muskhogean Indian word, ” bay-uk, ” through Cajun French, and into English.
Louisiana, which had already made school attendance compulsory, implemented a law in the 1920s that constitutionally forbade the speaking of French in public schools and on school grounds. The state expected Cajuns to come to school and to leave their language at home. This attempt to assimilate the Cajuns met with some success; young Cajuns appeared to be losing their language. In an attempt to redress this situation, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) recently reintroduced French into many Louisianan schools. However, the French is the standard French of Parisians, not that of Cajuns. Although French is generally not spoken by the younger generation in Maine, New England schools are beginning to emphasize it and efforts to repeal the law that made English the sole language in Maine schools have been successful. In addition, secondary schools have begun to offer classes in Acadian and French history.
In 1976, Revon Reed wrote in a mix of Cajun and standard French for his book about Cajun Louisiana, Lâche pas la patate, which translates as, “Don’t drop the potato” (a Cajun idiom for “Don’t neglect to pass on the tradition”). Anthologies of stories and series of other writings have been published in the wake of Reed’s book. However, Cajun French was essentially a spoken language until the publication of Randall Whatley’s Cajun French textbook ( Conversational Cajun French I [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978]).
In the oilfields, on fishing boats, and other places where Cajuns work together, though, they have continued to speak Cajun French. Storytellers, joke tellers, and singers use Cajun French for its expressiveness, and for its value as in-group communication. Cajun politicians and businessmen find it useful to identify themselves as fellow insiders to Cajun constituents and patrons by speaking their language.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY DYNAMICS
Cajuns learned to rely on their families and communities when they had little else. Traditionally they have lived close to their families and villages. Daily visits were usual, as were frequent parties and dances, including the traditional Cajun house-party called the fais-dodo, which is Cajun baby talk for “go to sleep,” as in “put all the small kids in a back bedroom to sleep” during the party. Traditionally, almost everyone who would come to a party would be a neighbor from the same community or a family member. Cajuns of all ages and abilities participated in music-making and dancing since almost everyone was a dancer or a player.
In the 1970s, 76 percent of the surnames accounted for 86 percent of all Cajuns; each of those surnames reflected an extended family which functioned historically as a Cajun subcommunity. In addition to socializing together, a community gathered to do a job for someone in need, such as building a house or harvesting a field. Members of Cajun communities traditionally took turns butchering animals and distributing shares of the meat. Although boucheries were essentially social events, they were a useful way to get fresh meat to participating families. Today, boucheries are unnecessary because of modern refrigeration methods and the advent of supermarkets, but a few families still hold boucheries for the fun of it, and a few local festivals feature boucheries as a folk craft. This cooperation, called coups de main (literally, “strokes of the hand”), was especially crucial in the era before worker’s compensation, welfare, social security, and the like. Today such cooperation is still important, notably for the way it binds together members of a community.
A challenge to a group’s cohesiveness, however, was infighting. Fighting could divide a community, yet, on the other hand, as a spectator sport, it brought communities together for an activity. The bataille au mouchoir, as described in Cajun Country, was a ritualized fight “in which the challenger offered his opponent a corner of his handkerchief and the two went at each other with fists or knives, each holding a corner, until one gave up.” Organized bare-knuckle fights persisted at least until the late 1960s. More recently, many Cajuns have joined boxing teams. Neighboring communities maintain rivalries in which violence has historically been common. A practice called casser le bal (“breaking up the dance”) or prendre la place (“taking over the place”) involved gangs starting fights with others or among themselves with the purpose of ending a dance. Threats of violence and other difficulties of travel hardly kept Cajuns at home, though. According to Cajun Country, “As late as 1932, Saturday night dances were attended by families within a radius of fifty miles, despite the fact that less than a third of the families owned automobiles at that time.”
Traditionally, Cajun family relations are important to all family members. Cajun fathers, uncles, and grandfathers join mothers, aunts, and grandmothers in raising children; and children participate in family matters. Godfathering and godmothering are still very important in Cajun country. Even non-French-speaking youth usually refer to their godparents as parrain and marraine, and consider them family. Nevertheless, traditionally it has been the mother who has transmitted values and culture to the children. Cajuns have often devalued formal education, viewing it as a function of the Catholic church—not the state. Families needed children’s labor; and, until the oil boom, few jobs awaited educated Cajuns. During the 1920s many Cajuns attended school not only because law required it and jobs awaited them, but also because an agricultural slump meant that farming was less successful then.
Although today Cajuns tend to date like other Americans, historically, pre-modern traditions were the rule. Females usually married before the age of 20 or risked being considered “an old maid.” A young girl required a chaperon—usually a parent or an older brother or uncle, to protect her honor and prevent premarital pregnancy, which could result in banishment until her marriage. If a courtship seemed to be indefinitely prolonged, the suitor might receive an envelope from his intended containing a coat, which signified that the engagement was over. Proposals were formally made on Thursday evenings to the parents, rather than to the fiancee herself. Couples who wanted to marry did not make the final decision; rather, this often required the approval of the entire extended family.
Because Cajuns traditionally marry within their own community where a high proportion of residents are related to one another, marriages between cousins are not unusual. Pairs of siblings frequently married pairs of siblings from another family. Although forbidden by law, first-cousin marriages have occurred as well. Financial concerns influenced such a choice because intermarriage kept property within family groupings. One result of such marriages is that a single town might be dominated by a handful of surnames.
Cajun marriage customs are frequently similar to those of other Europeans. Customarily, older unmarried siblings may be required to dance barefoot, often in a tub, at the reception or wedding dance. This may be to remind them of the poverty awaiting them in old age if they do not begin families of their own. Guests contribute to the new household by pinning money to the bride’s veil in exchange for a dance with her or a kiss. Before the wedding dance is over, the bride will often be wearing a headdress of money. Today, wedding guests have extended this practice to the groom as well, covering his suit jacket with bills.
One rural custom involved holding the wedding reception in a commercial dance hall and giving the entrance fees to the newlyweds. Another Cajun wedding custom, “flocking the bride,” involved the community’s women bringing a young chick from each of their flocks so that the new bride could start her own brood. These gifts helped a bride establish a small measure of independence, in that wives could could sell their surplus eggs for extra money over which their husbands had no control.
Roman Catholicism is a major element of Cajun culture and history. Some pre-Christian traditions seem to influence or reside in Cajun Catholicism. Historians partly account for Cajun Catholicism’s variation from Rome’s edicts by noting that historically Acadians often lacked contact with orthodox clergymen.
Baptism of Cajun children occurs in infancy. Cajun homes often feature altars, or shrines with lawn statues, such as those of Our Lady of the Assumption—whom Pope Pius XI in 1938 declared the patroness of Acadians worldwide—in homemade grottoes made of pieces of bathtubs or oil drums. Some Cajun communal customs also revolve around Catholicism. For decades, it was customary for men to race their horses around the church during the sermon. Wakes call for mourners to keep company with each other around the deceased so that the body is never left alone. Restaurants and school cafeterias cater to Cajuns by providing alternatives to meat for south Louisiana’s predominantly Catholic students during Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays. Some uniquely Cajun beliefs surround their Catholicism. For example, legends say that “the Virgin will slap children who whistle at the dinner table;” another taboo forbids any digging on Good Friday, which is, on the other hand, believed to be the best day to plant parsley.
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC TRADITIONS
Coastal Louisiana is home to one of America’s most extensive wetlands in which trapping and hunting have been important occupations. In the 1910s extensive alligator hunting allowed huge increases in rat musquè (muskrat) populations. Muskrat over-grazing promoted marsh erosion. At first the muskrats were trapped mainly to reduce their numbers, but cheap Louisiana muskrat pelts hastened New York’s capture of America’s fur industry from St. Louis, and spurred the rage for muskrat and raccoon coats that typified the 1920s. Cajuns helped Louisiana achieve its long-standing reputation as America’s primary fur producer. Since the 1960s, Cajuns in the fur business have raised mostly nutria.
The original Acadians and Cajuns were farmers, herders, and ranchers, but they also worked as carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, fishermen, shipbuilders, trappers, and sealers. They learned trapping, trading, and other skills for survival from regional Indians. Industrialization has not ended such traditions. Workers in oil fields and on oil rigs have schedules whereby they work for one or two weeks and are then off work for the same amount of time, which allows them time to pursue traditional occupations like trapping and fishing.
Because present-day laws ban commercial hunting, this activity has remained a recreation, but an intensely popular one. Louisiana is located at the southern end of one of the world’s major flyways, providing an abundance of migratory birds like dove, woodcock, and a wide variety of ducks and geese. A wide range of folk practice is associated with hunting—how to build blinds, how to call game, how to handle, call and drive packs of hunting dogs, and how to make decoys. Cajun custom holds that if you hunt or fish a certain area, you have the clear-cut folk right to defend it from trespassers. Shooting a trespasser is “trapper’s justice.” Certain animals are always illegal to hunt, and some others are illegal to hunt during their off-season. Cajuns sometimes circumvent restrictions on hunting illegal game, which is a practice called “outlawing.”
According to some claims, the modern American cattle industry began on the Cajun prairie almost a full century before Anglo-Americans even began to move to Texas. Learning from the Spanish and the Indians, Cajuns and black Creoles were among the first cowboys in America, and they took part in some of this country’s earliest cattle drives. Cattle rearing remains part of prairie Cajun life today, but the spread of agriculture, especially rice, has reduced both its economic importance and much of its flamboyant ways. In the nonagricultural coastal marshes, however, much of the old-style of cattle rearing remains.
Cajuns catch a large proportion of American seafood. In addition to catching their own food, many Cajuns are employees of shrimp companies, which own both boats and factories, with their own brand name. Some fisherman and froggers catch large catfish, turtles, and bullfrogs by hand, thus preserving an ancient art. And families frequently go crawfishing together in the spring.
The gathering and curing of Spanish moss, which was widely employed for stuffing of mattresses and automobile seats until after World War II, was an industry found only in the area. Cajun fishermen invented or modified numerous devices: nets and seines, crab traps, shrimp boxes, bait boxes, trotlines, and frog grabs. Moss picking, once an important part-time occupation for many wetlands Cajuns, faded with the loss of the natural resource and changes in technology. Dried moss was replaced by synthetic materials used in stuffing car seats and furniture. Now there is a mild resurgence in the tradition as moss is making a comeback from the virus which once threatened it and as catfish and crawfish farmers have found that it makes a perfect breeding nest.
Cajuns learned to be economically self-reliant, if not completely self-sufficient. They learned many of southern Louisiana’s ways from local Indians, who taught them about native edible foods and the cultivation of a variety of melons, gourds, and root crops. The French and black Creoles taught the Cajuns how to grow cotton, sugarcane, and okra; they learned rice and soybean production from Anglo-Americans. As a result, Cajuns were able to establish small farms and produce an array of various vegetables and livestock. Such crops also provided the cash they needed to buy such items as coffee, flour, salt, and tobacco, in addition to cloth and farming tools. A result of such Cajun agricultural success is that today Cajuns and Creoles alike still earn their livelihood by farming.
Cajuns traded with whomever they wanted to trade, regardless of legal restrictions. Soon after their arrival in Louisiana, they were directed by the administration to sell their excess crops to the government. Many Cajuns became bootleggers. One of their proudest historical roles was assisting the pirate-smuggler Jean Lafitte in an early and successful smuggling operation.
In the twentieth century, the Cajuns’ trading system has declined as many Cajuns work for wages in the oil industry. In the view of some Cajuns, moreover, outside oilmen from Texas—or “Takesus”—have been depriving them of control over their own region’s resource, by taking it literally out from under them and reaping the profits. Some Cajun traders have capitalized on economic change by selling what resources they can control to outside markets: for example, fur trappers have done so, as have fishermen, and farmers such as those who sell their rice to the Budweiser brewery in Houston.
POLITICS ABD GOVERNMENT
Cajuns, many of whom are conservative Democrats today, have been involved at all levels of Louisiana politics. Louisiana’s first elected governor, as well as the state’s first Cajun governor, was Alexander Mouton, who took office in 1843. Yet perhaps the most well known of Louisiana’s politicians is Cajun governor Edwin Edwards (1927-), who served for four terms in that office—the first French-speaking Catholic to do so in almost half a century. In recent decades, more Cajuns have entered electoral politics to regain some control from powerful oil companies.
Historically, Cajuns have been drafted and named for symbolic roles in pivotal fights over North America. In the mid-1700s in Acadia/Nova Scotia, when the French colonial army drafted Acadians, they weakened the Acadians’ identity to the British as “French Neutrals,” and prompted the British to try to expel all Acadians from the region. In 1778, when France joined the American Revolutionary War against the British, the Marquis de Lafayette declared that the plight of the Acadians helped bring the French into the fight. The following year, 600 Cajun volunteers joined Galvez and fought the British. In 1815, Cajuns joined Andrew Jackson in preventing the British from retaking the United States. Cajuns were also active in the American Civil War; General Alfred Mouton (1829–1864), the son of Alexander Mouton, commanded the Eighteenth Louisiana Regiment in the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing (1862), the Battle of Shiloh (1863), and the Battle of Mansfield (1864), where he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.
INDIVIDUAL AND GROUP CONTRIBUTIONS
Thomas J. Arceneaux, who was Dean Emeritus of the College of Agriculture at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, conducted extensive research in weed control, training numerous Cajun rice and cattle farmers in the process. A descendent of Louis Arceneaux, who was the model for the hero in Longfellow’s Evangeline, Arceneaux also designed the Louisiana Cajun flag. Tulane University of Louisiana professor Alcè Fortier was Louisiana’s first folklore scholar and one of the founders of the American Folklore Society (AFS). Author of Lâche pas la patate (1976), a book describing Cajun Louisiana life, Revon Reed has also launched a small Cajun newspaper called Mamou Prairie.
Lulu Olivier’s traveling “Acadian Exhibit” of Cajun weaving led to the founding of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), and generally fostered Cajun cultural pride.
Chef Paul Prudhomme’s name graces a line of Cajun-style supermarket food, “Chef Paul’s.”
Dewey Balfa (1927– ), Gladius Thibodeaux, and Louis Vinesse Lejeune performed at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival and inspired a renewed pride in Cajun music. Dennis McGee performed and recorded regularly with black Creole accordionist and singer Amèdè Ardoin in the 1920s and 1930s; together they improvised much of what was to become the core repertoire of Cajun music.
Cajun jockeys Kent Desormeaux and Eddie Delahoussaye became famous, as did Ron Guidry, the fastballer who led the New York Yankees to win the 1978 World Series, and that year won the Cy Young Award for his pitching. Guidry’s nicknames were “Louisiana Lightnin “‘ and “The Ragin’ Cajun.”
I am grateful to by Evan Heimlich for providing me permission to reproduced the above-noted article. DISCLAIMER BY YVON: The above noted is a very interesting article however, be aware I have found a number of inaccuracies, in same.