Acadiana and the Cajun Cultural Space: Adaptation, Accommodation, and Authenticity

This chapter evaluates the French culture of the Acadiana area of Southwest Louisiana, which comprises 22 of the state’s 64 parishes and 30 percent of the state’s population of some 4 million. It is called Acadiana, after the original Canadian land from which the population came, what was called Acadie (comprising what is now Nova Scotia with parts of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island). The word Cajun is most likely a corruption of Acadian although, as will be seen time and again herein, very little about folkloric tradition can be stated with certainty. The original French Canadians of Acadie were intentionally expelled by the British form the North American territory ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Urecht in 1715. This is referred to as Le Grand Derangement and is immortalized in Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline.”

Cajuns are not to be confused with Creoles, which is the name given to the early descendants of the French who settled for the most part in New Orleans and along the Mississippi River; and, Creole is also used to denote the African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture of New Orleans. Most important, Creole culture is traditionally urban or planter and Cajun culture is rural and small town.

As trappers, fishermen, and farmers, living in a remote area, off the land, the Cajuns were isolated from the influence of modern culture until after World War II. Inevitably, the effects of radio, movies, and television served to undermine Cajun isolation with the diminishment of traditional values. Regardless, the Cajuns have largely rejected a thoroughgoing “Americanization.” In fact, the increasing presence of American culture © The Author(s) 2017

K.V. Mulcahy, Public Culture, Cultural Identity, Cultural Policy, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-43543-9_6

may have reinforced feelings of ethnic solidarity and cultural identity among the Cajuns, rather than reducing it.

Certainly, the Cajun community and culture was modified to accommodate hegemonic Anglo-Saxon values. However, the Cajuns did not conform completely to the cultural homogenization associated with the American way of life, and they continue to retain their culture as a distinct and vital force. As a living culture, it has survived by continuing to adapt. The resurgence of identity consciousness generally since the 1960s further promoted increased self-awareness of what it meant to be Cajun.

Although Louisiana teachers were once formally required to prevent children from using French at school, educational and social agencies now promote the language and culture. CODOFIL, ConseilFor le Developpement du Frangais en Louisiane (Conseil pour for the Development of French in Louisiana), was founded in 1968 by Congressman Jimmy Domengeaux of Lafayette for the purpose of promoting French language instruction. The region’s largest city, Lafayette, has adopted bilingual signs and styles itself as La Capitale de FAcadie (The Capital of Acadiana). The University of Louisiana at Lafayette has been extremely active in Cajun folklore studies and the Arts Council of Acadiana actively supports Cajun cultural activities. Cajun music, with such prominent performers as Zachary Richard and Michael Doucet, with his band BeauSoleil, have enjoyed an international following.

This is not to say that Cajun cultural expressions are absent; Acadiana’s cultural space is hardly separatist or adverse to Anglicized influences and touristic representations. Nonetheless, there has been a strong popular commitment to the survival of its customs and way of life. The Cajun community is close knit with little emigration or immigration. Most important, the population manifests great pride in being Cajun as well as American. The Cajuns base their identity on communal bonds and a shared way of life within the American cultural mosaic.

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