views updated Jun 27 2018


ETHNONYMS: Acadians of Louisiana


Identification. The Cajuns are a distinct cultural group of people who have lived mainly in south-central and Southwestern Louisiana since the late eighteenth century. In the past, because of their Acadian heritage, residential localization, unique language, and Roman Catholicism, it was relatively easy to distinguish Cajuns from other groups in Lousiana. Today, their identity is less clear. It usually applies to those who are descended from Acadians who migrated in the late 1770s and early 1800s from Canada to what is now Louisiana, and/or live or associate with a Cajun life-style characterized by rural living, family-centered communities, the Cajun French language, and Roman Catholicism. Cajuns in Louisiana today are a distinct cultural group, separate from the Acadians of Nova Scotia. Like the Appalachians and Ozarkers, they are considered by outsiders to be a traditional folk Culture with attention given to their arts and crafts, food, music, and dance. The name "Cajuns" is evidently an English mispronunciation of "Acadians." Cajun and Black Creole Culture share a number of common elements, some of which are discussed in the entry on Black Creoles of Louisiana.

Location. In 1971 the Louisiana legislature designated twenty-two parishes as Acadiana: Acadia, Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Calcasieu, Cameron, Evangeline, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Lafourche, Pointe Coupee, St. Charles, St. James, St. John, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, Terrebonne, Vermilion, and West Baton Rouge. This region includes coastal marshes, swamps, prairies, and levee land. In recent decades, as the region has experienced economic development and population shifts, the boundaries of Acadiana have blurred. And the Cajuns are not the only residents of these parishes, which include non-Cajun Whites of various ethnic backgrounds, African-Americans, Black Creoles, and others.

Demography. In the 1970s there were about 800,000 Cajuns in Louisiana. After Acadians began arriving in Louisiana, perhaps as early as 1756, the population increased rapidly, from about 6,000 in 1810 to 35,000 in 1815 to 270,000 in 1880.

Linguistic Affiliation. Language use by Cajuns is a complex topic, with the relationship between the speakers and the social context often determining what language is spoken. Cajun French is the language commonly associated with the Cajun culture, though many Cajuns no longer speak it fluently and its use has declined markedly in the younger generation. Older Cajuns speak Cajun French in the home and with other Cajuns. Cajun French differs from standard French in the use of some archaic forms of pronunciation, the inclusion of various loan words from English, American Indian, Spanish, and African languages, and a simplified grammar. Cajuns usually use English as the contact language and as the Domestic language in an increasing number of homes. In some homes and communities, Creole French is spoken as well.

History and Cultural Relations

Cajun culture began with the arrival of French Acadians (the French-speaking people of the territory that is now mainly Nova Scotia in Canada) who migrated to and settled in what is now Louisiana mainly between 1765 and 1785. Some migrated directly from Acadia, whereas others came after stays in France and the West Indies. All came as part of the Acadian Diaspora, which resulted from their forced exile by the British from Acadia in 1755. Because of additional migrants who arrived in the early 1800s and a high birth rate, the Acadians increased in numbers rapidly and were soon the most numerous group in many locales where they settled. Once settled in Lousiana, in environments very different from Acadia and in contact with other cultures including Black Creoles, American Indians, Germans, Spaniards, and Italians, the Acadian culture began to change, eventually becoming what has come to be called Cajun culture. With the exception of those in the levee-land region who lost their land to Anglos, most Cajuns lived in relative isolation in rural communities where they farmed, fished, or raised cattle.

It was not until after World War I that mainstream Society entered Acadiana and began to influence Cajun life. Mechanization of farming, fishing, and cattle raising, the building of roads linking southern Louisiana to the rest of the state, mass communication, and compulsory education changed local economic conditions and exposed Cajuns to mainstream Louisiana society. Contact also meant that the use of Cajun French decreased, and in 1921 it was banned from use in public schools.

The end of World War II and the return of Cajun veterans to their homes was the beginning of a new era in Cajun culture, one characterized by continuing involvement in mainstream life and by the birth of Cajun ethnicity, reflected in pride in one's heritage and efforts to preserve some traditional beliefs and practices. In 1968 Lousiana created the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) as a mechanism to encourage the teaching of French in public schools. Because of conflicts over which French to teachstandard French or Cajun Frenchthe program has not been a total success, though many Cajun children do participate in French-language programs.

Acadians are one of a number of groups of French ancestry in Louisiana, which also include the French-Canadians, Creoles, and those who emigrated directly from France. Relations between the Cajuns and other groups in Louisiana Including Anglos, Creoles, Black Creoles, and others were generally peaceful because the Cajuns were largely self-sufficient, lived in distinctly Cajun regions, were numerically dominant in those regions, and chose to avoid conflict. That they were Roman Catholic while others were mainly Protestant further contributed to group segregation. Within the regional class structure, Cajuns were considered better than Blacks but the lowest group of Whites. In general, they were seen as poor, uneducated, fun-loving backwoods folk. Cajuns generally viewed themselves as superior to the poor rural Whites referred to as Rednecks.


Acadian settlements in the past varied in size, style, and structure among the four major environmental zones. Settlements included isolated houses, small farms, towns, ranches, and families living on houseboats. Population relocations, the arrival of non-Cajuns, and changes in economic activities have all produced changes in settlement patterns. In recent years, there has been a marked trend to settlement in towns and cities through migration from the rural areas. The Acadian cottage, a small, nearly square dwelling with a covered front porch and high-pitched roof, was a distintively Cajun house type in the 1800s. It was raised a few feet above the ground and constructed from cypress wood and infilled with clay and moss. Some later styles of dwellings were elaborations on the basic style, though all have now been replaced by modern-style homes made from mass-produced materials.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In Canada, the Acadians lived by farming (wheat, oats, rye, vegetables), raising cattle, and fishing, and by selling surplus crops and cattle and buying manufactured products. Louisiana had a markedly different environment, with four environmental regions, none exactly the same as Acadia. These new environments led to the development of new subsistence and commercial pursuits in Louisiana as well as variation in activities from one region to another. In the levee-land region, the early Cajun settlers grew maize and rice for consumption and cotton for sale. They also grew vegetables and raised cattle. Non-Cajuns began settling in the region around 1800, however, and took much of the land for large plantations. Most Cajuns moved elsewhere; those that stayed lived by subsistence farming in the backwaters until well into the twentieth century. In the swampland region, fishing and the hunting and gathering of crawfish, ducks, crabs, turtles, frogs, and moss were the major economic activities. By the late 1800s, most Cajuns in this region were involved in the commercial fishing industry, and many still are today, though they have modernized their equipment and methods and often live outside the swamps. The Cajuns who settled on the Louisiana prairies developed two economic adaptations. Those in the east grew maize and cotton, supplemented by sweet potatoes. Those in the west grew rice and raised cattle, with local variation in terms of which was the more important. In the marshland region, on the Chernier Plain, Cajuns raised cattle, trapped, and Gardened; on the Deltaic Plain they farmed, fished, hunted, and trapped.

Regular contact with the outside economy, which influenced all regions by about 1920, has changed the traditional economy. Cattle ranching has declined, and sugar cane, rice, cotton, and maize are now the major crops. As towns have developed and compulsory education laws have been enforced, Cajuns have been employed in service-sector jobs, and many now work in the oil and gas industries that have entered the southern part of the region. With public interest in the Cajuns as a folk culture developing in the 1960s, tourism has also become a source of income.

Industrial Arts, Aspects of the traditional subsistence technology of the 1800s that draw attention today are mainly adaptations to life in the swamp and marshlands. The traditional technology has been modernized, although traditional knowledge and skills are still valued. Aspects of the traditional technology that are of interest today are the Cajun cottage, the various tools and techniques used in collecting crawfish, crabs, and moss, and the pirogue (a narrow canoe made from a dugout log or planks).

Trade. The intinerant traders (marchand-charette ) who once supplied most household supplies are a thing of the past. Most Cajun families are now integrated into the mainstream economy and purchase goods and services.

Division of Labor. The traditional economy centered on cooperation among members of the extended family and kindred. Men generally had responsibility for subsistence activities, and women managed the household. As the Cajuns have been drawn into American society, traditional sex roles have weakened, with women now working outside the home and often taking the lead in "Americanizing" the family.

Land Tenure. Despite their early settlement in Louisiana, Cajuns own relatively little land. This is the result of a number of factors, including dishonest land agents, Cajun ignorance or misunderstanding of real estate laws, and patrilineal inheritance of property coupled with patrilocal residence which meant that once sizable farms were divided into smaller and smaller units over the generations. Today, lumbering, fossil fuel, and agricultural corporations own much land in the Cajun region, and in some locales, many Cajuns lease the land they farm.


The basic social and economic unit in traditional times was the patrilineally extended family, whose members often lived near one another. Nearby residence was encouraged by Patrilocal postmarital residence which involved fathers giving newly married sons a piece of the family land. Wider ties were also maintained with the local community, which often involved homesteads located some miles from one another. Preferential community endogamy meant that others in the community often included the wife's kin. People were involved with this kinship network throughout their lives.

Marriage and Family

Marriage and Domestic Unit. Although community and in-group endogamy was preferred, some women did marry non-Cajun men who were rapidly and easily assimilated into the group. Marriage usually occurred at a young age. Divorce was rare and difficult to justify. Although the nuclear family unit lived in the same dwelling as part of the extended family, the extended family was the basic social and economic unit. Kin worked together, helped build each other's houses, went to the same church, had to approve the marriage of female kin, cared for each other's children, and socialized and celebrated together. Both the country butchery (la boucherie de campagne ), where kin met every few days to butcher hogs for meat, and the weekly public dance (fais do-do ) provided opportunities for regular socializing by family members. Men were the major decision makers in their homes, but if a man died, his wife, not his sons, assumed control. Children lived at home until they married.

This traditional pattern of marriage and family began to change after World War I and then changed even more rapidly after World War II. Today, nuclear families have replaced extended ones, with economic ties now far less important than social ones in kinship groups. Husbands no longer dominate families, as women work outside the home and establish lives for themselves independent of their families. The prohibition of the teaching of French in Louisiana schools has created a generation gap in some families with grandparents speaking Cajun French, parents speaking some Cajun French, and the grandchildren speaking only English. Marriage to outsiders has also become more frequent, and is often the reverse of the former pattern, with Cajun men now marrying non-Cajun women who acculturate their husbands into mainstream society.

Socialization. Traditionally, children were raised by the extended family. Cajuns rejected formal education outside the home except for instruction provided by the church. Parents emphasized the teaching of economic and domestic skills and participation in the activities of the kinship network. In 1916 school attendance up to age fifteen became compulsory, although the law was not rigorously enforced until 1944. Public school education played a major role in weakening the traditional culture, as it resulted in many children never learning or even forgetting Cajun French and provided skills and knowledge useful in mainstream society, thus giving younger Cajuns the opportunity for upward socioeconomic mobility. Today, Cajun children attend both public and parochial schools and tens of thousands participate in French-language programs in elementary schools. The rapid growth of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, McNeese State University, and Nicholls State University is evidence that many Cajuns now attend college as well.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Social cohesiveness in Cajun Communities as well as a general sense of being Cajun was maintained through various informal mechanisms that brought Cajuns together both physically and symbolically. The Roman Catholic church was a major unifying force, as it provided the belief system that supported many Cajun practices as well as differentiated Cajuns from their mostly Protestant neighbors. As noted above, the extended family and the somewhat larger kinship network were the basic social groupings in Cajun society. These social units were maintained through daily participation of members and through regularly scheduled get-togethers such as the boucherie and the fais do-do and the cockfights that brought the men together. There was no formal class structure, though a Cajun elite, the "Genteel Acadians" emerged in the early 1800s. They were mainly a few families who had become wealthy as farmers, merchants, or professionals. They tended to marry non-Cajuns, lived among Anglos and Creoles, and looked down upon the poor, rural Cajuns. Within the Cajun group in general, there was a continuum of wealth, though most were poor. Today, as the Cajuns have shifted from being a distinct cultural group to an ethnic group, group cohesiveness has weakened, with a sense of "being Cajun" derived from Membership in a group that shares a common tradition.

Political Organization. There was no overarching political structure governing Cajun life, nor was there any purely Cajun political organization at the local level. Rather, Cajuns generally participated in Louisiana and national politics as voters. Two governors and other state officials came from the Genteel Acadian ranks in the 1880s. In the 1900s, Edwin Edwards, "the Cajun Governor" was first elected in 1972.

Social Control and Conflict. Conflicts were preferably handled by the local group, through mediators, or through fighting between men when matters of honor were involved.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Cajuns were and are mainly Roman Catholic. Experts suggest that the traditional culture cannot be understood unless the central role of the Catholic church is considered. On the one hand, their Roman Catholic beliefs set the Cajuns apart from the surrounding population, which was mainly Baptist and Methodist. On the other hand, the church was a visible and active participant in family and Social life in every community. The priest was often a major figure in the community, setting the moral tone and serving as a confidant and adviser as necessary. All life events such as birth, marriage, and death required church rituals as did many daily events, with the blessing of fields, tools, boats, and so on an integral part of the work cycle. There were also numerous festivals and feast days of religious significance. Perhaps more important, the church teachings formed the belief system underlying Cajun social organization. Male dominance in the home, stable marriages, large families, and so on were all in accord with the requirements of the church. In addition, Roman Catholicism as practiced in Acadiana created an atmosphere that allowed the celebration of life, or "la joie de vivre," so characteristic of Cajun culture.

Ceremonies. All the major Roman Catholic holidays were celebrated by the Cajuns. Mardi Gras was the most important festival, with local communities celebrating in ways often much different than that in New Orleans. Public dances (bals ), festivals, and feasts were regularly held in Cajun Communities. All usually involved community dinners, dancing, playing, drinking beer, and music making, and all were family affairs with the entire family participating. Although they occur now less often, public dances, especially the fais do-do, are still important social events for the extended family. Dances, parties, and other opportunities to have a good time are an integral element of the Cajun life-style. Numerous other festivals are held in Acadiana each year, many of which are harvest festivals focusing on local crops such as sugar cane, rice, crawfish, and shrimp.

Arts. With their current status as a folk culture, considerable interest has developed in the expressive elements of traditional Cajun culture, especially the music and food. Both are unique cultural forms, with a French base combined with elements drawn from American Indian, Spanish, African, British, and German cultures. Both have also changed over the years as new features have been added. Today, Cajun music comes in a variety of styles, the two most prominent being the country-western style and zydeco, which reflects the influence of Black rhythm and blues. Cajun music involves a band, singing, and sometimes foot-stomping. The particular instruments vary with the style, though the fiddle and accordion have been basic instruments for some time. As with their music, Cajun food reflects the combining of elements from a number of cultural traditions on a rural French base. Traditional Cajun cuisine was also influenced, of course, by the foods grown or available locally. From this combination of Influences, we find, for example, the heavy use of cayenne pepper for a piquant taste, an oil and flour roux, gumbo, dirty rice, jambalaya, boudin (stuffed hog intestine casings), and crawfish as distinctive elements of Cajun food.

See alsoAcadians , Black Creoles of Louisiana


Conrad, Glenn R., ed. (1983). The Cajuns: Essays on Their History and Culture. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Del Sesto, Steven L., and Jon L. Gibson, eds. (1975). The Culture of Acadiana: Tradition and Change in South Louisiana. Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Dorman, James H. (1983). The People Called Cajuns. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Rushton, William Faulkner (1979). The Cajuns: From Acadia to Louisiana. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


views updated May 23 2018

CAJUN, sometimes Cajan.
1. Also Cajun French. A dialect of French in southern Louisiana, developed from the regional French carried there in the 18c by immigrants expelled from Acadia in Canada. Cajun is one of three kinds of local French: Louisiana Standard French, Cajun, and CREOLE. All three are spoken varieties, although the now rare standard form is written for ceremonial occasions. Creole developed from the French-based creole brought by black slaves from the Caribbean. Cajun and Creole are spoken side by side and have been influenced by each other and by English.

2. Also Cajun English. The English that has arisen in the 23 parishes of Louisiana called Acadiana, where about 16% of the population still speaks Cajun French. Several characteristics are borrowings or translations from French, such as cher as a term of endearment, make (compare French faire) as an auxiliary verb (He made closed the door), hair as a count noun (I have to wash my hairs: compare French cheveux), and the object pronoun used for emphasis at the beginning or end of a sentence (Me, I'm going to the store; I was late, me: compare moi).

3. Someone descended from the original immigrants, especially if living in Acadiana and speaking Cajun French and English. Cajuns are known for devotion to family life, Roman Catholicism, hunting and fishing, and ‘passing’ a good time. Their cuisine and music enjoy widespread popularity in the US, as manifestations of the Cajun motto: Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll! See AMERICAN ENGLISH.


views updated May 17 2018

Cajun a member of any of the largely self-contained communities in the bayou areas of southern Louisiana formed by descendants of French Canadians, speaking an archaic form of French and known for their lively folk music and spicy cooking. The name comes from an alteration of Acadian (see Acadia).


views updated May 09 2018

Cajun French-speaking settlers in Louisiana. They were driven from Nova Scotia (then Acadia) by the British in the 18th century. Cajun music is a popular style.


views updated May 23 2018


CAJUNS. SeeAcadia .