The Uniqueness of the Louisiana Cajuns

The concept of culture as a “way of life” is an extremely complex and intricate concept. Customarily, the meaning of culture involved aesthetic concerns, such as of art, music, dance, voice, sculpture, and the decorative arts. However, culture also has an anthropological side as “the totality of socially transmitted patterns, belief institutions” (The American Heritage Dictionary). And, as was noted in the Foreword, culture can denote “the distinctive custom’s, achievements, productions, outlooks of a society or group” (Oxford English Dictionary). Cajun culture is closely linked with the anthropological sense of the term; in other words, it is culture expressed in the way that it is lived.

The most important aspect of this sense of culture is that it provides a basis for beliefs about shared identity. People who are part of a cultural sphere hold certain things in common and look at the world from a shared perspective. In communal beliefs manifested in unique traditions and expressions, answers are provided to questions about “who we are.” Cajunness is such a self-identification based on a sense of shared values that constitute personal identity.

One may speak of sports culture, corporate culture, college culture, as activities in which individuals have a shared sense of belonging. However, recreational, occupational, and educational identities typically play only a small part in the provision of a worldview and the rituals that mark life’s passages. Cultures that are a ‘way of life’ are different. They play a larger role in shaping the big picture of values that determine community traditions, social cohesion and individual self-worth (Jordan 1985: 51).

A culture that is a way of life is most salient when territorially based, tradition-oriented, all-encompassing, and recognized as a marker of identity as such by both the local people and outsiders. This is not simply a matter of personal interests, diversion, or entertainment. Such deeply held symbolic values maintain togetherness and constitute a societal glue. The way of life is identifiable through its shared rituals and unified expressive patterns such as festivals, food, music, religion, and history. This is magnified when rooted in an identifiable, territorially distinct homeland.

A recognized geographic area, with a predominant ethnic population, a distinctive identity, but no claim to political autonomy or independence, defines a cultural space. Cajun Acadiana has been a unique area of cultural distinctiveness, as such, one of the few in the USA (New Mexico, with its historic Hispanic population, culture, and territory shares this distinction. There is also a small Acadian area located on the Maine-New Brunswick border, which has, of course, ties to Louisiana Cajuns). “Southern Louisiana is the only recognized remnant of the French presence in the Mississippi River Valley during the eighteenth century. Despite political Americanization in the nineteenth century, rural French Louisiana continued to grow as a distinctively French region” (Trepanier 1991: 161).

There are certain traits that define Acadiana. Its population of some 700,000, while by no means small, is hardly large enough to constitute a stand-alone region. (Quebec, for example, has a population of 7 million.) The language, a largely unwritten dialect, has long been problematic as a means of communication or discourse in commerce or education, and is now essentially folkloric. Moreover, the Cajun homeland was never independent like Scotland and Catalonia or an administrative entity like Quebec or Puerto Rico. The Acadian cultural space is a special sphere recognizable for its peculiar expressiveness. Cajun culture is considered by its residents as having a special French heritage, while sharing association with the more powerful Anglo-Saxon culture by adaptation and accommodation.

The survival of the Cajun way of life continues to be centered around its relatively homogenous, rural social structure, with small metropolitan centers and the maintenance of a stable population. Cajun culture also has strong Catholic sensibility in an evangelical Protestant South. With this ethnic homogeneity, population stability, and shared spiritual values, the Cajuns have created their own identity separate from the dominant ethos, but neither antagonistic nor separatist. In sum, the Cajuns have been successful in establishing a cultural space that is “a self-definition that gives them insulation from the dominance of the state’s Anglicized society” (Tentchoff 1980: 238). As noted, Cajun culture has enjoyed something of a revival in recent decades even if the customs revived are arguably of questionable authenticity.

The following points are important in order to fully understand the Cajun nature and what makes the Cajuns distinct: their diasporic experience—the eighteenth-century expulsion and subsequent aftermath; Acadiana—the Cajun homeland in Louisiana with its distinctive characteristics; how folk culture and celebration of heritage have mediated Cajun culture; that these traditions are manifested in what are primarily familial and customary rituals with special importance given to a large number of local festivals; the viability of Cajun Acadiana as a cultural sphere with a definable cultural space.

As suggested, a Cajun cultural identity has survived through a process of adaptation and accommodation. The question that must be addressed is whether this cultural dualism constitutes a legitimate adaptation or a commercialized accommodation; put another way, is this a fusion culture or commodified imitation? Unquestionably, what represents Cajun cultural authenticity is a highly debatable, often contentious issue reflecting strongly felt social-historical beliefs. The most often debated aspect of Cajun culture is its restrictiveness, that is, whether descendants of the diasporic experience are the only “real Cajuns”? Or is such a notion of identity ownership by privileged descendants definable or meaningful? These matters are discussed below.

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