Part of my childhood, a very happy part, was spent in South Louisiana. And one of the best things about 1950s South Louisiana was the people there, who were mostly Cajun.
I have a special fondness for Cajuns and their way of life. Who wouldn't like Cajuns? They are known for their joie de vivre, their joy of living, and for their easy-going, open ways, their down-to-earth attitude, their sense of humor, and their wonderful food. And their music.
But despite all this, they are a group of people with rather a sad history.
Cajuns are a group of people of mostly French descent, whose ancestors settled in Canada, and who were displaced in a tragic event referred to as Le Grand Dérangement.
Le Grand Dérangement ("The Great Disturbance") is the name given to the Acadians’ 1755 mass expulsion from their homeland by the British military. An illegal action undertaken during peacetime without approval of the British government in London, the expulsion was devised by Major Charles Lawrence, a professional British soldier who in 1754 took command of the colony as its lieutenant governor.
Later appointed full governor, Lawrence feared that the Acadians, despite their claims of neutrality, would become fifth columnists in the event of another war with France. The Acadians’ numerical advantage over their British overseers magnified his fear. In addition, Lawrence desired the Acadians’ fertile farmlands for loyal Anglo-Protestant settlers. Failing to acquire from the Acadians an ironclad oath of allegiance to the British crown, Lawrence summoned Acadian males to fortified posts under false pretenses and arrested them while soldiers burned homes and boats and rounded up women and children. Herded into ports, Lawrence divided the Acadians into groups according to age and sex, loaded them onto overcrowded vessels, and scattered them across thousands of miles in a deliberate attempt to wipe out the Acadian identity. (Numbering some 12,000 to 18,000 total, only 6,000 to 7,000 Acadians were actually expelled on British ships, the remainder fleeing to neighboring regions.) According to some estimates, about half the pre-expulsion Acadian population died from disease, exposure, and starvation brought about directly by the British operation (which by modern standards arguably constituted an incident of genocide or "ethnic cleansing"). ''
As usual, in these historical accounts of 18th century colonial North America, the British are cast as the bad guys. I will overlook that for now. It certainly does seem as though the Cajuns suffered some real ill-treatment in this event. But Canada's loss was eventually Louisiana's gain.
From the Wikipedia entry on Cajuns:
Cajuns are an ethnic group mainly living in Louisiana, consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles and peoples of other ethnicities with whom the Acadians eventually intermarried on the semitropical frontier. Today, the Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana's population, and have exerted an enormous impact on the state's culture.
The Cajuns retain a unique dialect of the French language and numerous other cultural traits that distinguish them as an ethnic group. Cajuns were officially recognized by the U.S. government as a national ethnic group in 1980 per a discrimination lawsuit filed in federal district court. Presided over by Judge Edwin Hunter, the case, known as Roach v. Dresser Industries Valve and Instrument Division (494 F.Supp. 215, D.C. La., 1980), hinged on the issue of the Cajuns' ethnicity. Significantly, Judge Hunter held in his ruling that:
"We conclude that plaintiff is protected by Title VII's ban on national origin discrimination. The Louisiana Acadian (Cajun) is alive and well. He is “up front” and “main stream.” He is not asking for any special treatment. By affording coverage under the “national origin” clause of Title VII he is afforded no special privilege. He is given only the same protection as those with English, Spanish, French, Iranian, Portuguese, Mexican, Italian, Irish, et al., ancestors."
From the Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture:
Dictionaries generally define Cajun as "a Louisianian who descends from French-speaking Acadians." However, many common Cajun surnames — for instance, Soileau, Romero, Huval, Fontenot — are not Acadian in origin, but rather are Spanish, German or French Creole. Some are even of Anglo or Scotch-Irish origin, as in the case of famed Cajun musicians Lawrence Walker and Dennis McGee.
For this reason, contemporary scholars of Cajun history and culture tend to offer a more complex, comprehensive view, attributing the traits of modern-day Cajuns to a dynamic, unending process of ethnic interaction. Although modern Cajuns are largely homogenous, their ancestry consists of a mixture of many ethnic groups.
Most early Acadians originated in the Centre-Ouest region of France, but others came from families of Spanish, Irish, Scottish, English, Basque, and, in a few instances, American Indian heritage. After their 1755 expulsion from Nova Scotia, Acadians seeking refuge in South Louisiana again intermixed with other ethnic groups, particularly with French, Spanish, German, and, later, Anglo-American settlers, as well as Indians (albeit to a lesser extent). Historian Carl A. Brasseaux has shown, for example, that after the Civil War over fifty percent of brides and grooms with Acadian surnames were marrying persons with non-Acadian surnames.''
From another source:
In July 1632 three hundred French settlers arrived in Acadia to carve out frontier homes near the community of Port Royal. Fifty-five percent of these Acadian "first families" hailed from the Centre-Ouest region of France (Poitou, Aunis, Angoumois, and Saintonge); of these, eighty-five percent came from the La Chausée area of Poitou. These families included Doucet, Bourgeois, Boudrot (Boudreaux), Terriault (Theriot), Richard, LeBlanc, Thibodeaux, Comeau(x), Cormier, Hébert, Brault (Breaux), Granger, and Girouard.
Most of these and later Acadian settlers derived from Old World peasant stock, shared similar cultural traits, and on the frontier developed a common Acadian identity.
According to historian Carl A. Brasseaux, the Acadian pioneers were characterized by individualism, adaptability, pragmatism, industriousness, egalitarian principles, and an ability to pull together when threatened. They also possessed extended families, and distinctive language and speech patterns. The Acadians were also typically non-materialistic, seeking only economic independence and a decent standard of living through an agrarian way of life. Some ethnic diversity did exist among the Acadians, however: a few were of English, Scottish, Irish, Spanish, Basque, and even American Indian origin.
Those of French origin, however, dominated the cultural landscape, and as intermarriage occurred the Acadian population quickly became homogenized. Studies indicate that between 1654 and 1755 the Acadian population grew from 300-350 colonists to about 12,000-15,000 (despite a fifty-percent child mortality rate). Sources: Ancelet et al., Cajun Country; Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun; Brasseaux, "Scattered to the Wind"; Domengeaux, "Native-Born Acadians"; Dormon, People Called Cajuns.''
So despite their fewness in number and the centuries that have passed since their arrival in North America, the Cajuns have maintained their identity as a distinct group of people. For the first century or so of their life in America, they lived side by side with various other settler groups in Louisiana, but kept their distinctivness as a people. It was not until the upheavals of the War Between the States and Reconstruction that their identity was somewhat threatened by social change.
Of that era, Julie Elizabeth Hebert says:
Several stereotypes which still accompany the idea of “a true Cajun” developed in these eras: lazy, ignorant, illiterate, and simple. Able to remain unassimilated for the most part, Cajuns continued to act in the ways they had before the war. Like all good Southerners, they still loved card games, parties, and communal get togethers, but unlike the Americans, Cajuns continued to work at their own pace, a work ethic which stood in complete contrast to the American idea of progress. James Dorman, in his work on the ethnicity of the Cajun culture, quotes several journalists of the day who described the Cajuns as follows: “a Utopian dreamer and idler...—one who sits on the skirts of progress,” “the Acadian who overworks is indeed a rara avis [rare bird],” and “most of them are mere squatters on the Prairies.” Southerners, in general, thought little of the Cajuns and their culture because their values negated the closely held American values of material wealth, the Protestant work ethic, and progress. Cajuns, themselves, thought little of American standards including those regarding education, and Cajun folk wisdom summed up the Cajun opinion on education: “My son is rascal enough without an education.” Cajuns reveled in their illiteracy, and this attitude concerning education served as another reason why the Americans looked down upon the “poor,” “stupid” Cajuns of south Louisiana.
Despite these qualities which fostered a negative stereotype of Cajuns, observers of Cajun communities repeatedly remarked upon two distinct Cajun ethnic qualities in a positive light: hospitality and family ties. Travelers in the South during the post-Civil War era commented upon the friendliness with which the Cajun family welcomed strangers into their home and their willingness to share what little they had with those in need. Motivated, not by a conscious sense of charity, but rather by an inherited trait of hospitality, Cajuns opened their homes to all who graced their doorsteps. Continuation of the strong family ties among the Cajun communities, the second positive quality of Cajun culture, survived through the institution of marriage. Cajun youth often married among their own kind. Women of Cajun descent usually married men of similar heritage; however, if a young Cajun woman decided to marry a German or Creole, the family ties, although slightly altered, still remained strong within her own family. According to most historians of this culture, the Cajun culture continued to flourish mainly because of the female population and the roles mothers played in childrearing and in the preserving of family customs and traditions. Cajun women reared their children while the men worked, and if the woman was Cajun, she reared her children to appreciate and respect their Cajun traditions and heritage.
Hebert describes how the expansion of railroads reduced the isolation of the Cajuns, and increased the trend toward cultural homogenization. However, those Cajuns who did not choose the urban lifestyle became the keepers of Cajun culture in their rural small communities.
Huey P. Long, the governor of Louisiana from 1928-1932 (and later Senator), also did his part in discouraging the isolation of the Cajuns by means of his road improvements.
Those influenced by these improvements most likely did not realize the extent to which these improvements functioned as infiltrators of their isolationism and their ethnic culture. Despite all the necessary changes brought by the Long administration, one piece of legislation issued a substantial blow to the Cajun ethnic identity: the Louisiana Constitution of 1921. Through this document, the legislature denied public schools the right to instruct children in both French and English. Most Cajun rural folk and children were monolingual and able to speak very few words of English. Louisiana legislators through this law in essence denied Cajun children the right to education in their primary language forcing them either to learn English or remain illiterate.[...]
As the ethnic ties of the community as a whole continued to unravel, the negative stereotype in regards to French speakers remained a constant on the Louisiana social landscape. Through all of this, rural Cajun culture survived almost untouched, and observers of these decades described the rural Cajuns in much the same way as others had described them in previous decades:
“Their homes are always spotless, and there is always a welcome and a cup of black coffee for any caller, even though he be a stranger,” a typical Cajun “lives in his own home, usually with several relatives, besides his immediate family. He keeps a cow, some chickens, and raises a few vegetables which he sometimes sells. Sometimes he helps keep a store in the nearby village,” and “an unsophisticated agrarian people who have clung tenaciously to their old customs and traditions.”
Because of their “geographic, occupation, and language isolation,” the rural Cajuns achieved a social isolationism “greater than that of any other American ethnic group.” People in the 1920s and 1930s identified this Cajun ethnicity and began to describe the Cajun culture based on its ethnic qualities. While the urban Cajun assimilated, the rural Cajun in his isolation preserved his cultural traditions.
Later on, World War II, which took many young Cajun men far from home and heritage, further encouraged their assimilation into the larger society. Following the war, the Rural Electrification Administration brought the 'modern world' into rural Acadiana, and the spread of television in the 1950s was a further blow to traditional Cajun ways.
Other modernizing trends took their toll:
With the advent of supermarkets, the need for boucheries deteriorated, and the variety of foods available in these markets expanded the Cajun palate which undermined the traditional cuisine. The bals de maisons found their replacements in the radio, the television set, and the movie theater. Cajun music came under attack, as well, and in the 1950s others called this music “Chanky-Chank” music “suggesting the simplicity of instrumentation and rhythm as well as the characteristically reiterative harmonic line.” Modernization resulted in a definite decline in the rural Cajun ethnic culture.''
And then came the 1960s, which was the beginning of a wholesale tearing-down of traditional mores in general, including those of Cajun country. But one benefit of the 1960s and 70s was a new interest in ethnicity and roots. 'Folk music' enjoyed a wave of popularity. At first, most of the 'folk music' craze was a dilettantish dabbling by academics and college students looking for something quaint and different and 'authentic'. The result was manufactured 'folk music' like that of the Kingston Trio and the college 'Hootenanny' craze. However, it did eventually lead many people to explore genuine roots music and honest-to-goodness traditional music from many sources. Cajuns benefited from this, as Cajun music became respectable and respected again, rather than being disparaged as 'chanky-chank' music. And not only Cajun music, but Cajun history, culture, and the Cajun dialect of French gained new attention.
With all this, however, the Cajun people are unmistakably part of America. There is something quintessentially American about their character along with their distinctiveness as a people. They, to my mind, are an example of a healthy ethnic group which is nonetheless part of America. There is none of the chip-on-the-shoulder, outsider victimhood mentality among Cajuns, in my experience. There may be some individuals with such attitudes but I have not encountered them.
Do I contradict myself? I now and then rail about unassimilable ethnic groups who have a stand-offish, us-vs.-them attitude towards the rest of us. I remember a discussion at Free Republic a few years ago involving Cajuns and their language, and somebody made a snarky comparison between Cajuns and Mexican immigrants who speak Spanish. The comparison incensed me; the attitudes of Cajuns and Mexicans are not comparable. At all. Cajuns love Louisiana, and they love America. Cajuns carry no residual allegiance to France or to Canada, their original home in the New World. This country, specifically Louisiana, is their home. They have no centuries-old grudge against Anglo-Americans as have Latinos. I remember no hostility in school between kids of Cajun descent and those of Anglo or other descent. Everybody got along famously; the Cajun kids were the most accepting and agreeable of all the classmates I had during my school years, despite my 'Texan' origin. There was a kind of jocular rivalry with Texans at that time, but no animosity. (And maybe it helped that I had a surname that, despite its non-French origin, was a surname borne by some Cajun families in the area.)
And somehow, along with their distinctiveness, Cajuns seem to be very much a part of the South. Their ways, although identifiably 'Cajun' are also part and parcel of the South. There is a compatibility there. There is no sense of disharmony or cultural clash between south Louisiana and, say, Texas. They differ, but there are commonalities. They are part of a larger whole: America, and the South specifically.
But the thought that crosses my mind most often these days in connection with the Cajuns is that they represent a group of people who might have disappeared centuries ago, but who have survived, despite being a small and rather vulnerable group of people, who were displaced and harried by historical events. Yet they have maintained their identity while still becoming part of the United States of America. It proves to me that if the sense of belonging to a group, and a pride in that group, is strong enough, the people and their culture can survive even if greatly outnumbered. That may be a lesson we will have to take from the Cajuns, we or our children and grandchildren, as they become an outnumbered and displaced group of people in the new 'America' or whatever takes its place.
From the website of the wonderful Cajun band, Balfa Toujours, this passage seems apposite:
Today the Cajun people are standing tall. After 400 years of almost constant pressure to conform to the larger cultures surrounding them, they have proven that their identity is too strong to be eradicated. This challenge has been increased greatly by the developments of this century, which have taken their toll on many subcultures. It appears that these challenges have largely been met in Louisiana, with many young people now taking pride in their heritage. A clear example of this is with the language. In the 1950's and 1960's, many people were punished in school for speaking French. Today, there are French immersion schools in which all classes are taught in a language that was considered shameful only a few decades ago.
This cultural revival has brought the Cajun people a lot of attention. While this is good for the Cajuns, certainly, it is perhaps not enough. It was Dewey Balfa's sincere hope that the further effect of his work would be to inspire other cultures as well. He hoped that others would see his pride and begin to feel it more strongly about their own heritage. If the story of the Cajuns can help to accomplish this, it will truly have done something marvelous.''
We who are the sons and daughters of Anglo-America can learn from the Cajuns a pride in their heritage, their people, and culture. If we can regain that, we will have half-won the battle.
However, one advantage the Cajuns had which is denied us in our 21st century America is isolation and freedom of association. They were able to have their own little area of South Louisiana in which their culture could persist and thrive, and they had the strength of community and kinship ties to sustain their culture. Our mass Tower of Babel culture does not afford us this luxury, as our communities are being purposely broken up.
Can we Americans survive as a distinct people, possibly even a minority people, in the face of the forcible multiculturalizing of our country, and despite the attempt to discredit our history and our culture? I think it will be an uphill journey unless we return to a more manageable, decentralized way of life with local control, and regain our freedom of association. Think small'; think local. Remember how destructive the mass media can be, and re-create a genuine way of life apart from the pernicious effects of television and mass pop culture.
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