by Evan Heimlich
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 reconsolidated 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.
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.
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.
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 and 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."
Formerly The Morning Star, it was founded in 1954 and is primarily a religious monthly.
Contact: Barbara Gutierrez, Editor.
Address: 1408 Carmel Avenue, Lafayette, Louisiana 70501-5215.
Telephone: (318) 261-5511.
Fax: (318) 261-5603.
Acadian Genealogy Exchange.
Devoted to Acadians, French Canadian families sent into exile in 1755. Carries family genealogies, historical notes, cemetery lists, census records, and church and civil registers. Recurring features include inquiries and answers, book reviews, and news of research.
Contact: Janet B. Jehn.
Address: 863 Wayman Branch Road, Covington, Kentucky 41015.
Telephone: (606) 356-9825.
Email: [email protected]
Published by the Acadian News Agency since 1969, this is a magazine for bilingual Louisiana.
Contact: Trent Angers, Editor.
Address: Acadian House Publishing, Inc., Box 52247, Oil Center Station, Lafayette, Louisiana 70505.
Telephone: (800) 200-7919.
Cajun Country Guide.
Covers Cajun and Zydeco dance halls, Creole and Caju restaurants, swamp tours, and other sites in the southern Louisiana region.
Contact: Macon Fry or Julie Posner, Editors.
Address: Pelican Publishing Co., 1101 Monroe Street, P.O. Box 3110, Gretna, Louisiana 70054.
Telephone: (504) 368-1175; or, (800) 843-1724.
Fax: (504) 368-1195.
Mamou Acadian Press.
Founded in 1955, publishes weekly.
Contact: Bernice Ardion, Editor.
Address: P.O. Box 360, Mamou, Louisiana 70554.
Telephone: (318) 363-3939.
Fax: (318) 363-2841.
Rayne Acadian Tribune.
A newspaper with a Democratic orientation; founded in 1894.
Contact: Steven Bandy, Editor.
Address: 108 North Adams Avenue, P.O. Box 260, Rayne, Louisiana 70578.
Telephone: (318) 334-3186.
Fax: (318) 334-2069.
The Times of Acadiana.
Weekly newspaper covering politics, lifestyle, entertainment, and general news with a circulation of 32,000; founded in 1980.
Contact: James Edmonds, Editor.
Address: 201 Jefferson Street, P.O. Box 3528, Lafayette, Louisiana 70502.
Telephone: (318) 237-3560.
Fax: (318) 233-7484.
This station, which has a country format, plays "Cajun and Zydeco Music" from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. on Saturdays.
Contact: Johnny Bordelon, Station Manager.
Address: 100 Chester, Box 7, Marksville, Louisiana 71351.
Telephone: (318) 253-5272.
Country, ethnic, and French-language format.
Contact: Paul J. Cook.
Address: P.O. Box 847, Morgan City, Louisiana 70381.
Telephone: (504) 395-2853.
KJEF-AM (1290), FM (92.9).
Country, ethnic, and French-language format.
Contact: Bill Bailey, General Manager.
Address: 122 North Market Street, Jennings, Louisiana 70545.
Telephone: (318) 824-2934.
Fax: (318) 824-1384.
Country, ethnic, and French-language format.
Contact: Paul J. Cook.
Address: P.O. Box 847, Morgan City, Louisiana 70380.
Telephone: (504) 395-2853.
Fax: (504) 395-5094.
Contact: Garland Bernard, General Manager.
Address: Highway 167 North, Box 610, Abbeville, Louisiana 70511-0610.
Telephone: (318) 893-2531.
Fax: (318) 893-2569.
National Public Radio; features bilingual newscasts, Cajun and Zydeco music, and Acadian cultural programs.
Contact: Dave Spizale, General Manager.
Address: P.O. Box 42171, Lafayette, Louisiana 70504.
Telephone: (318) 482-6991.
E-mail: [email protected]
KVOL-AM (1330), FM (105.9).
Blues, ethnic format.
Contact: Roger Cavaness, General Manager.
Address: 202 Galbert Road, Lafayette, Louisiana 70506.
Telephone: (318) 233-1330.
Fax: (318) 237-7733.
Country, ethnic, and French-language format.
Contact: Jim Soileau, General Manager.
Address: 809 West LaSalle Street, P.O. Drawer J, Ville Platte, Louisiana 70586.
Telephone: (318) 363-2124.
Fax: (318) 363-3574.
Organizations and Associations
Acadian Cultural Society.
Dedicated to helping Acadian Americans better understand their history, culture, and heritage. Founded in 1985; publishes quarterly magazine Le Reveil Acadien.
Contact: P. A. Cyr, President.
Address: P.O. Box 2304, Fitchburg, Massachusetts 01420-8804.
Telephone: (978) 342-7173.
Those interested in maintaining links among individuals of Acadian descent and their relatives in New England. Conducts seminars and workshops on Acadian history, culture, and traditions.
Contact: Richard L. Fortin.
Address: P.O. Box 556, Manchester, New Hampshire 03105.
Telephone: (603) 641-3450
E-mail: [email protected]
The Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore.
Located at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (Universitè des Acadiens ), the center organizes festivals, special performances, and television and radio programs; it offers classes and workshops through the French and Francophone Studies Program; it also sponsors musicians as adjunct professors at the university.
The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL).
A proponent of the standard French language, this council arranges visits, exchanges, scholarships, and conferences; it also publishes a free bilingual newsletter.
Address: Louisiane Française, Boite Postale 3936, Lafayette, Louisiana 70502.
The International Relations Association of Acadiana (TIRAA).
This private-sector economic development group funds various French Renaissance activities in Cajun country.
The Madawaska Historical Society.
Promotes local historical projects and celebrates events important in the history of Acadians in Maine.
Museums and Research Centers
Visitors can see preservations and reconstructions of many nineteenth-century buildings at the Acadian Village and Vermilionville in Lafayette; the Louisiana State University, Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, and at the Village Historique Acadien at Caraquet.
Researchers can find sources at Nichols State University Library in Thibodaux; at the Center for Acadian and Creole Folklore of the University of Southwestern Louisiana; and at the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Offers on-site reference assistance to its Acadian archives, and to regional history, folklore and Acadian life.
Contact: Lisa Ornstein, Director.
Address: Univerity of Maine at Fort Kent, 25 Pleasant Street, Fort Kent, Maine 04743.
Telephone: (207) 834-7535.
Fax: (207) 834-7518.
Sources for Additional Study
Ancelet, Barry, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre (with additional material by Carl Brasseaux, Fred B. Kniffen, Maida Bergeron, Janet Shoemaker, and Mathe Allain). Cajun Country. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1991.
Brasseaux, Carl. Founding of New Acadia, 1765-1803; In Search of Evangeline: Birth and Evolution of the Myth. Thibodaux, Louisiana: Blue Heron Press, 1988.
The First Franco-Americans: New England Life Histories From the Federal Writers Project, 1938-1939, edited by C. Stewart Doty. Orono: University of Maine at Orono Press, 1985.
Identification. "Acadia" ("Acadie") was the name given to the first permanent French colony in North America. Historians disagree as to the origins of the name. One possibility is that it derives from "Arcadia," a name given to a land that was considered a sort of earthly paradise in ancient Greece. The Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano gave the name "Arcadie" to an area he explored along the eastern seaboard of North America in 1524. The other, more likely, possibility is that "Acadie" was borrowed from the Micmac people of the present-day Maritime Provinces of Canada: it is found in many Micmac place names such as "Tracadie," "Shunenacadie," and "Tanacadie." Today, "Acadie" is used to refer to areas in the Maritime Provinces that are populated by
French-speaking descendants of the original inhabitants of the colony of Acadia.
Location. The Maritime Provinces include New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. Being Canada's three smallest provinces, together they cover just over 1 percent of Canada's land surface. The territory predominantly inhabited by Acadians includes almost half of the province of New Brunswick, where French is the majority Language both in the three northern counties and on the east coast. Elsewhere, Acadians form a scattered population living in isolated pockets in western Prince Edward Island, southwestern Nova Scotia, and eastern Nova Scotia. The sea forms a natural boundary around the Maritime Provinces, except New Brunswick, which touches upon the province of Quebec to the north and the state of Maine to the west.
Given their position on Canada's Atlantic coast, the Maritimes have a cool, temperate climate: cold continental air masses from the northwest alternate with warmer, humid maritime air from the southwest. Winters are long and cold, and snowfalls abundant. The city of Moncton, in the geographical center of the region, has an average annual snowfall of ninety-two inches. Typically, spring and summer are short seasons, and the autumn is long and pleasant, with cool nights. Summers are very warm in inland areas and along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but cooler on the Atlantic coast. The average temperature in Moncton is 18° F in January and 64° F in July, although high temperatures occasionally reach 86° F in July. Average annual precipitation is thirty-nine inches. The growing season lasts on the average 133 days, Beginning in early May and ending in September. Within the Acadian areas of the Maritime Provinces are two regions with distinctly different weather patterns. Northern New Brunswick has a colder, more continental climate, with a shorter growing season. In Campbellton, for example, the average growing season lasts only 110 days. Southwestern Nova Scotia, in contrast, has a humid, temperate climate with rainy winters and few extremes in temperature.
Demography. In 1986, the total population of the Maritime Provinces was 1,709,000. In census returns, the main indicator used to identify the Acadian population is the mother tongue. In 1986 the total population with French as the mother tongue was 295,000, or 17 percent of the population of the Maritimes. The vast majority of Acadians now live in New Brunswick. Those whose mother tongue in 1986 was French numbered 248,925 in New Brunswick, 39,630 in Nova Scotia, and 6,525 in Prince Edward Island.
There is no city where the Acadians form a majority of the population. The largest concentration of urban Acadians is in Moncton, where they form a third of the population of 80,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. Recent figures have shown that the French language is in sharp decline in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, where Acadians form only 5 percent of the population. Though almost all New Brunswick Acadians used French as their first language in 1986, one-third of Nova Scotia Acadians and almost one-half of those living in Prince Edward Island indicated that English was the main language spoken at home. The rate of acculturation is highest in urban areas where Acadians form a small minority, such as Halifax, St. John, and Charlottetown, although the recent opening of French-language schools in these cities may influence the trend.
The French language, as spoken by Acadians, includes many archaic elements that originated in the seventeenth-century dialects spoken in western France. The strongest linguistic affiliations are found between Acadia and the Loudun area in the northern part of Poitou. There are several regional linguistic differences in Acadia itself. In northern New Brunswick, for example, the proximity of the province of Quebec has influenced the spoken language, whereas isolated areas such as Chéticamp, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, have maintained a more archaic form of speech. In the Moncton area, constant intermingling between Acadians and English speakers has spawned a hybrid form of speech, known as Chiac. In French-language schools, modern standard French is taught, and students are strongly encouraged to avoid mixing French and English. Educational institutions also tend to condemn the use of archaic expressions no longer accepted in modern French usage, although in recent years many voices have been raised in the Acadian Community calling for the maintenance of the distinctive elements of the Acadian dialect.
History and Cultural Relations
The first French colonists arrived in Acadia in 1604. After illfated attempts to establish colonies on Ile Sainte-Croix (Dotchet Island, Maine) and at Port-Royal (Nova Scotia), Acadia was abandoned and Britain seized control of the area, naming it Nova Scotia in 1621. In 1632, the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye returned Acadia to French jurisdiction and permanent colonization began. Between 1632 and 1654, when Acadia once again fell to the British, about fifty families of colonists arrived from France, and those few families formed the nucleus of the present-day Acadian population.
Politically, the next hundred years continued to be marked by instability. Because of the weak position it occupied on the margins of both the French and the British North American empires, Acadia changed hands several times. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht gave Britain permanent control of peninsular Nova Scotia, and with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France lost the rest of what had been the colony of Acadia. During the tense period between these two treaties, the Acadians were referred to by the British as the "French neutrals" because of their desire to avoid all involvement in military conflicts. But despite the Acadians' avowed neutrality, the British began to deport them in 1755, with the goal of destroying their culture and placing settlers from New England on their lands. Among a total population of about thirteen thousand, at least ten thousand were deported between 1755 and 1763. The rest either fled to Quebec or were captured and detained in military camps.
Once a permanent peace had been established, a new Acadia was born, as prisoners being released from detention searched for lands on which to settle. They were joined by a number of Acadians returning from exile, although most of these were drawn toward Quebec, which remained a French-speaking territory, or Louisiana, where they settled in large numbers and became known as "Cajuns." For two centuries, the Acadian population in the Maritime Provinces increased both in numbers and in proportion of the total population, until the 1960s, when the Acadian percentage of the population leveled off in New Brunswick and began to decline in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Today's Acadians have a whole range of social, educational, and cultural institutions and are active participants in the political process, both provincially and federally, although their political influence is significant only in New Brunswick.
In Acadian rural communities long lines of houses stretch along both sides of a main road. Land is divided into parallel strips beginning at the road and continuing beyond the cleared area into the woods. Livestock used to be branded and left to roam free in the woods during grazing season, but now all pastureland is fenced in. The main outbuilding is a barn constructed of vertical wooden boards. The parish church is usually found at the center of the village, with local institutions such as the post office, credit union, and cooperative store nearby. Except in communities with a population of over a thousand, there is rarely a cluster of houses in the center of the village. Rather, the population is evenly spread out along the main road. This is true in both farming and fishing communities, as Acadians in coastal areas Traditionally practiced both activities. Rather than living in a clustered community around a harbor, fishing families lived on farms and often traveled several miles to reach the local harbor during fishing season.
The average rural house is quite small and made of wood. The kitchen, the largest room, is the center of activity for the household. Nineteenth-century houses usually included a small room beside the kitchen and two upstairs bedrooms. Acadians have always had a tendency to modify their houses as needed. Often, small houses were enlarged with the addition of a new wing as the family grew. For exterior wall covering, modern clapboard has now replaced cedar or spruce shingles, and asphalt shingles have replaced the original wooden ones on the roof.
Urban houses show various influences in style. Again, wood is the most important element used in construction. In urban areas occupied by Acadians, the main signs of their presence are the Catholic church, the French school, and the credit union.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until the late nineteenth century, rural Acadian communities had a Subsistence economy based on a combination of mixed farming, fishing, and forestry. The development of the commercial fishery, and particularly the lobster industry, brought a modest revenue to rural Acadians beginning in the 1880s. Similarly, the development of the forest industry permitted Acadians to earn money cutting wood during the winter, when farming and fishing activities had ceased. In inland areas, where subsistence agriculture was the main activity, cutting wood in remote lumber camps during the winter provided the only source of cash income. After World War II, subsistence agriculture ceased and the more marginal inland Communities became depopulated. In some areas, successful commercial farming has been developed, the main crop being potatoes. An important dairy industry also now exists. The relative success of commercial fishing and farming has prevented massive depopulation in rural areas, although a tendency to move to industrial centers outside the region has existed since the late nineteenth century and still continues.
The traditional diet of Acadians consisted of salt pork, salt fish, wild game (deer, moose, and rabbit), and a limited amount of vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, and string beans, as well as tea, bread, and molasses. Products such as tea, flour, sugar, and molasses were obtained from local stores and were often bartered for such farm products as butter and eggs.
Industrial Arts. Weaving and knitting are important craft activities for women. Colorful hooked rugs have been produced in large quantities since the early twentieth century, when traveling merchants began yearly trips to Acadian Communities in order to exchange manufactured goods for rugs. Today, rugs and hand-woven goods are sold primarily through craft outlets.
Trade. Since the Great Depression, when many Acadians found themselves indebted to local merchants, the Cooperative movement has had a strong following. Consumer coops are found throughout Acadia, and many people also belong to producer coops, marketing such diverse products as Children's clothing, potato chips, and frozen fish.
Division of Labor. Traditionally, men tended to leave their homes in order to engage in seasonal activities such as lumbering and fishing while the women carried out not only work activities in the home but also much of the farm work. Most women now seek salaried employment outside the home to contribute to the domestic economy, but in farm households women still tend to participate actively in agricultural work.
Land Tenure. Land is privately held, although large tracts of land in the wooded interior are government-owned Crown Lands that may be leased for forest exploitation. Most Acadians tend to be small landowners, and even in cities private ownership of dwellings, rather than renting, is the norm.
Kin Groups and Descent. The nuclear family is at the center of the social structure of Acadians. Apart from identifying strongly with their immediate family, people also identify with their extended family, or parenté, including grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and even to a certain extent with distant relations with whom they share a common lineage. Because of the limited number of families that gave rise to the Acadian people in the seventeenth century, the community today can be considered a type of large, extended family, where multiple alliances have been formed among Individual kin groups over the years. The fact that they are a Minority group with no distinct territory has contributed to making Acadians aware of the importance of maintaining the bonds existing among families. In the past, knowledge of one's lineage was maintained orally by a family elder. Today, Acadians use archival sources to trace their family trees, often seeking to trace both their male and their female lineages.
Kinship Terminology. It is common practice to refer to an individual by his or her father's first name rather than by family name. For instance, in a village where there are several families sharing the name Bourgeois, the son of Georges Bourgeois may be known as Léandre à Georges, rather than Léandre Bourgeois.
Marriage. Acadian society long maintained, both through church and parental influences, a taboo regarding marriage outside the Acadian Catholic community. Pressure to marry within one's own cultural group has now diminished, but Acadians still tend to follow the established practice. Couples now usually marry in their midtwenties, whereas the norm used to be the early twenties, and even younger in the case of females. Although the Catholic church disapproves of divorce, Acadians have followed the national trend toward an increase in the divorce rate. The birthrate, which in the past was very high by Canadian standards, has decreased significantly since the 1960s.
Domestic Unit. The single-family household is the basic domestic unit. Aged parents often live with a son or daughter, although it is becoming a common practice to send elderly parents to nursing homes when their health deteriorates. In the past, young married couples often lived with the groom's parents until they had the means to build their own home.
Inheritance. Early Acadians divided their landholdings among their sons. When the land parcels became too small to sustain a family, the sons moved away to settle on new lands. In the twentieth century, the tendency is for one of the Children to inherit the land, while the rest of the estate is shared among all the children.
Socialization. In rural communities, an unwritten code of behavior exists, and those who transgress it meet with disapproval that may be expressed in different ways. Physical punishment has always been rare, and rejection, either temporary or permanent, from local society is the most common form of punishment.
Social Organization. In the past, immediate authority in each community was held by the parish priest. Since the early 1960s, the church has relinquished its authority in temporal matters, and a new educated elite has filled the void. Acadian nationalist organizations such as La Société Nationale des Acadiens attempt to represent and influence public opinion, with varying success.
Political Organization. Each Canadian province has a democratically elected legislature, with each member representing a riding (district) in his or her province. The Provincial legislatures share power with the federal government. Voters elect members to both their provincial legislature and the federal parliament in separate elections.
Social Control. With the modernization of Acadian Society, it is difficult to maintain social control through Community-imposed sanctions, and there is a greater dependence on the Canadian legal system.
Conflict. Since the end of the conflict between the British and the French in 1763, Acadia has been a peaceful land. By establishing themselves in separate areas, Acadians and English-speaking citizens in the Maritimes largely avoided conflict. A strong element of anti-French prejudice persists, however, and this is most evident in towns, such as Moncton, where the two groups now interact on a regular basis.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Acadians have always been Roman Catholics. Their attachment to the church endured even during the difficult years of resettlement in the late eighteenth century, when church services were held only during rare visits by missionaries from Quebec. In the absence of a priest, it was customary for villagers to gather for Sunday prayers led by an elder of the community. Though adhering strictly to Roman Catholic practices, Acadians traditionally had a strong belief in sorcery, associating sorcerers with the power of the devil. There was also a strong belief that the souls of the deceased in purgatory could manifest themselves to the living. To protect themselves from evil influences, Acadians used the power of prayer, as well as holy objects and holy water, and occasionally requested a priest to perform an exorcism. With the changes in dogma the church has undergone since the 1960s, religious beliefs have tended to become more rationalized.
Religious Practitioners. Parish priests, though still highly respected figures in the community, no longer have the absolute authority they once held in Acadian society. Until the middle of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for people to believe a priest could heal a sick person or stop a forest fire by reciting certain prayers.
Ceremonies. Christmas and Easter are the most Important religious holidays, but traditional feast days have tended to coincide with less important dates on the religious calendar. For example, a festive celebration marking the middle of the winter was held on Candlemas Day, February 2, and the third Thursday in Lent was known as Mi-Careme (Mid-Lent), with people excused from their Lenten obligations for the day. The patron saint of Acadia is Our Lady of Assumption, and August 15, Assumption Day, is the Acadian national holiday.
Arts. Acadians possess a rich oral literature consisting of songs, folktales, and legends. Ballads and tales brought from France by the original settlers have been preserved to a remarkable extent. The Acadians' propensity for music is a distinctive cultural trait, and in almost every family there are singers and musicians who play folk or country music.
Medicine. Before the middle of the twentieth century, Acadians rarely consulted professional medical practitioners. The midwife had an important role in the community, and traditional herbal medicinal cures were widely used. Regional medical clinics have now replaced the village midwife, but herbal medicine is still used in rural areas, and people considered to have the gift of stopping bleeding or curing specific ailments are commonly consulted.
Death and Afterlife. It was once customary for Acadians to hold all-night wakes in their homes, but the establishment of funeral parlors, with their set hours, has now changed the form of the wake. Acadians like to keep mementos of the dead—for example, photographs of the deceased at the Funeral parlor. The month of November used to be referred to as le mois des morts, and religious ceremonies would then take place in cemeteries. There has been a recent decline in Religious observances regarding the dead, but it is still common to celebrate a mass in memory of a deceased person on the anniversary of the death.
See also Cajuns, French Canadians
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Daigle, Jean, ed. (1982). The Acadians of the Maritimes. Moncton: Centre d'etudes acadiennes.
Lapierre, Jean-William, and Muriel Roy (1983). Les Acadiens. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Tremblay, Marc-Adelard, and Marc Laplante (1971). Famille et parente en Acadie. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.
Vernex, Jean Claude (1978). Les Francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick. Paris: Librairie Honore Champion.
Acadia consisted of what became three provinces of Canada: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. It was distinct from the French colony around the St. Lawrence River known as New France. In 1604 an expedition of about eighty men from France settled on an island in the St. Croix River and the following year moved to Port Royal on mainland Nova Scotia. The early settlers suffered from scurvy, and many colonists returned to France in 1607. Only a handful of French settlers pursued minor commercial pursuits from then until the core group of what became the Acadian population settled in the 1630s under the leadership of Governor Isaac de Razilly. Between 1670 and 1750, the Acadian population grew from approximately five hundred to some twelve thousand.
The majority of Acadians lived in small agricultural communities around the Bay of Fundy. They quickly cultivated very productive land by using dikes to reclaim wetlands. Until the construction of the massive fortress of Louisburg on Île Royal (Cape Breton Island) in the 1720s, no other French community was within easy reach of the Acadians, and they thus developed a tradition of autonomy. They also built good relations with the aboriginal peoples of the area, the Mi'kmaq and the Maliseet, and established trade links with the English colony of Massachusetts.
During the imperial wars between France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Acadians' autonomy proved difficult to maintain. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht permanently transferred the mainland of Nova Scotia to England. Acadians had often declared themselves neutral in wars between France and England, and the English attempted, with little success, to have Acadians take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. In 1749 the English founded Halifax as a counterweight to Louisburg. In 1754 another war began between France and England, and in 1755—after continued efforts to have Acadians take an oath of allegiance—Governor Charles Lawrence began forcibly deporting the Acadians, expelling approximately eleven thousand by 1762. While some Acadians avoided expulsion, the majority found themselves expatriated to France or dispersed to other English colonies. Louisiana, a French colony until ceded to Spain in 1762, became a popular destination of exiled Acadians, where they became known as Cajuns.
In 1764 the Acadians were allowed to return upon taking an oath of allegiance. However, during the Acadians' exile, approximately twelve thousand New England colonists, known as the Planters, had taken over much of the Acadians' former lands. Returning Acadians thus settled on marginal farming areas in southwest Nova Scotia, eastern New Brunswick, parts of Cape Breton Island, and Prince Edward Island. The English forced the Acadians to settle in marginal areas to develop frontier regions and because they believed that weak Acadian communities might be assimilated. However, the Acadians preserved their language, religion, and folk traditions, and in the 1830s and 1840s they began collectively to reassert themselves. More Acadians entered politics, where they insisted on the recognition of Acadian identity, especially their language and religion. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow assisted this nascent Acadian nationalism when he published his famous poem, Evangeline, in 1847, in which he told the story of lovers torn apart by the expulsion.
Daigle, Jean, ed. Acadia of the Maritimes: Thematic Studies from the Beginning to the Present. Moncton, New Brunswick: Université de Moncton, 1995.
Griffiths, Naomi E. S. The Contexts of Acadian History, 1686–1784. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.
R. Blake Brown