Cajuns are French exiles from present day Nova Scotia who refused to go under British rule after the French and Indian War, and decided to settle in Louisiana. I want to say we know them from the poetry and songs of Barry Jean Ancelet, but, realistically, the first person most of us associate with Cajuns is Gambit from the X-Men. But that’s actually not such a bad example as Cajuns are also part of a small minority that’s fighting for their identity in a world that’s not always very friendly to them. Keith, who is a Cajun from New Orleans knows a lot about it. This is his story:
Research by Evan Symon.
You Will Be Constantly Lumped In With Other Groups
A big part of a death of a culture comes through lumping that culture and those people in with other similar ones. The Navajo and Mohawks, for example, could not be more different, yet for years they’ve been lumped together under the general name “Indians” (and a few others, though I can’t really repeat them here.) Many Mennonites are put together with similar “Amish” groups, and as for Cajuns, they’ve been put with every group BUT Cajuns. Keith explains:
“When you say [you’re Cajun] here, everyone knows exactly who you are. Any place in Louisiana and I’d say into Houston and Alabama, the average person will know what you are. Outside of there, everyone will think you’re French. I had trouble with this in College. I went out of state (Missouri) and not many people knew what a Cajun even was. Some people knew enough to have heard that, but because New Orleans was founded by the French and because we speak French, I was always called French.”
“Explanations don’t help. I told people my people fled Canada, and because of our French, they always assume Quebec. But it was Acadia (Present day Nova Scotia), and that just confuses people even more. In addition to French, I’ve been called Canadian, Quebecois, or simply Southern.”
Not only does it muddle unique cultures and ethnic groups, but it can also mess with the census, which doesn’t currently give people like Keith the right tools to identify themselves. Things have gotten better, no question there, but it can still get a bit confusing.
“I’ve done the Census twice and both times I wrote down something different. I put down ‘French’ the first time because my ancestors were originally from there before Acadia, but the second time it was ‘Cajun’. Do I put Cajun? French? Acadian? Canadian? My mother’s side is partially from Sweden. Do I say that? Or do I just label myself American? There’s no right answer.”
Your Family Line Is A Slow Progression Of Your Culture Being Eradicated
Although folks today have a hard time grasping Keith’s ancestry, the people in the past didn’t have that problem. They understood it perfectly: to them, it was something that everyone needed to forget about and “be normal.”
“My dad told me that his grandmother, my great-grandmother, couldn’t go to school unless they spoke English. There’s a really great story about Great-Grandmother’s Father meeting the principal, and the principal was saying, in Cajun French, about how important it was she learn English, because otherwise nobody would understand Cajun. While they were speaking it. My grandmother grew up with this thinking that English was better and so did my dad. My grandmother learned Cajun French since there were enough people around who didn’t know English, but my dad didn’t.”
There was a reason for that. In 1921, Louisiana banned French (specifically Cajun French) from being used in schools, and for decades before, schools were stamping it out of students. A common punishment for speaking French in school was a beating. That is known professionally as the Borg School of cultural assimilation.
“I’d compare it to how we view the Southern accent nowadays. If you spoke Cajun then you were seen as common or as a poor swamp person. If you speak with a Southern accent now you’re seen as not as intelligent. Neither are true, but lots of people decided to not be seen that way and drop it. The difference is that Southerners aren’t kicked out of school for their accent.”
And that’s basically how cultural extermination begins. This is how it typically ends:
“We lost recognition for our music a few years ago. We had a Grammy award specifically for Zydeco (Cajun word for Cajun music – accordions and violins), but they took it away. Many things that were formerly known as Cajun are now ‘New Orleans’. Like Gumbo or Po’Boys. We made our own spin, but they’re not called Cajun … Southern Louisiana seems to be the popular wording. Those stereotypes I was talking about are embraced for tourism. The food and the accents and the language are at such a point that we’re making fun of ourselves. A lot of Cajuns I know are fine with this, but some of the smaller traditions I remember are gone. By going down to a festival for tourists, you’d never know we played soft music or serve things that don’t involve seafood.”
Your Cultural Heritage Can Come In Handy All Of A Sudden
“My Grandfather fought in France in WWII,” Keith says. “The Army needed people who spoke French and he was chosen. He told me that when American squads met up the translators would often ask each other where in Acadia they were from, without asking if they were even from the same state, because so many translators were Cajun French … when it came down to finding people who spoke perfect French, the people they thought were dumb and had ridiculous accents knew it.”
Cajuns were actually the main group of French translators for the US during the war, and did more than Keith could remember from his grandpa. Many Cajuns were instrumental in the OSS and communicating with the resistance. And unlike other American, British and Canadian Quebecois speakers who were easily found out by Germans, Cajun French sounded so much like lower class French that they were not caught as spies. But it’s not just WWII when Cajun French became one of the best skills a person could have.
“It’s been helpful. I know limited Cajun, but it helps in things you wouldn’t think it would. From remembering my Grandparents speak it and living in New Orleans I know exactly what people are saying in the thickest of accents. We had a professor from Quebec who people could not keep up with, but I did with no problem. I didn’t even know people had a problem until a girl sitting next to me said ‘How are you able to write notes on his lecture? No one else is.’ I looked up to see the rest of the room looking confused and students asking every few minutes for him to repeat what he said. You grow up with Cajuns and you’ll never have to worry about understanding with an accent again.”
People Will Try To Save Your Language And Culture… But It May Already Be Too Late
After a long period of suppression and assimilation, a language/culture on the verge of dying is going to pull a Rocky, get up, and started punching like their life depended on it. Because it does. Navajo, once in a steep decline, is now translating Super Bowl games and Star Wars movies into their language and setting up Navajo language-only grade schools. Gullah (a creole language spoken by some African-Americans in South Carolina and Georgia) translated the New Testament to keep the language alive. Massachusett, an extinct language, was even raised from the dead in 1993.
And Cajun is taking many measures too. In the 60’s, Louisiana officials began integrating French back into the state, and individuals like Keith are doing whatever they can to help.
“Today Cajun French is trying to be saved. I’m doing what I can. I’ve gone to classes (Colleges such as Louisiana State offer it), I go to concerts, I’ll speak it if I can.”
“I went to Little Italy in New York in 2012 and we went on a tour. Our tour guide said that Little Italy used to take up all of the southern part of the island. But in 2012 we walked the entire area in 20 minutes. They used to be their own culture there. But now there’s barely anyone left, and it’s not even Italian. Everything just said it’s Italian. I’m deathly afraid it’s going to happen to Acadia. We’re losing our language and we’re already puffing out our heritage into a stereotype of itself … In 100 years I don’t want Cajuns to be remembered with only a district. This is hundreds of years of culture we can lose, and I don’t want to lose it.”