What does it mean to be Cajun, and what makes Cajuns any different from the rest of Americans? Two new books take a stab at these deceptively simple questions.
April 16, 2003
The 2000 census revealed that about 90 percent of the Cajun population had disappeared from the face of the planet within a decade. The absurdity of the claim was felt not only locally and expressed by local media, but also as far away as New York City. For a story in The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Bragg paid a visit to Don’s Seafood and Steak House in Downtown Lafayette. The lunchtime crowd assured him that they were not only Cajun, but they were also still there.
In the 1990 census, more than 400,000 people claimed that they were Cajuns. A decade later, that number dropped to almost 45,000. Common sense would tell anybody that when nearly 90 percent of a given group of people vanishes within 10 years, you’re probably going to see something about it on the evening news or read about it in the morning paper.
In an unpublished manuscript titled “Where Have Cajuns of Yore Gone?” Jacques Henry, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette associate professor of sociology, speculates that three factors contributed to the abnormal census figures. The first factor involves a nationwide trend of fewer claims of ethnic ancestry. In Louisiana alone in 2000, there were 40 percent fewer claims of Irish ancestry than 10 years earlier, 38 percent fewer claims of German ancestry, 32 percent fewer claims of French ancestry and a 30 percent decrease in English ancestry claims. Conversely, there was a 60 percent increase in claims of American ancestry in Louisiana and a 58 percent increase in the claim on a national level. Claims of French Canadian ancestry grew by only 8 percent nationally, but by 55 percent here in Louisiana.
Even with the shifts in ancestry claims, Henry says he believes there’s more to the story of the missing Cajuns. On the longer form of the census, which only 15 percent of the population receives, there is a blank space for respondents to name their ancestry. Henry notes that when the word “Cajun” was included as an example on the form in 1990, claims of Cajun ethnicity grew by 1,935 percent, the largest growth of any ethnic group in the nation. On the 2000 census form, “Cajun” was omitted as an example, but French Canadian was kept. The claims of Cajun ancestry dropped, while the claims of French Canadian increased.
But even then, Henry admits, census numbers still don’t account for the black hole that supposedly devoured nearly all of the Cajuns. The answer to this debacle might not be known until the full ancestry data is finally released by the Census Bureau.
But the open-ended predicament leads to some other questions: Who is a Cajun? How is that defined, and what sets a Cajun apart from others?
Shane K. Bernard was born in Lafayette and raised in the Ivanhoe subdivision. The son of swamp pop legend Rod Bernard, he grew up with his Cajun buddies who, like himself, didn’t speak a lick of French, played with GI Joes and read comic books. In the introduction of his latest book, The Cajuns: The Americanization of a People, Bernard says that although he’s Cajun, he was raised just like any other American kid.
He says he began to wonder, “How did I end up like I am? I’m a Cajun, but I’m so different from my grandparents – only a little different from my father – but there’s a big cultural gap between my grandparents and me.”
Bernard is a historian and has worked for the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco sauce, as curator since 1993. In the spring of 1997, he began researching his dissertation for his doctorate in history, which would lay the groundwork for The Cajuns, a history of the Cajun people from the beginning of World War II to Sept. 11, 2001.
Bernard found that the common thread running through Cajun culture during those 60 years was the process of Americanization or, as he writes in his book, “the process of becoming like the Anglo-American establishment that has traditionally dominated the nation’s mainstream culture.” Bernard says that the common understanding of the word “Americanization” deals with ethnic groups who come to America and become Americans. He used the word in another way: to associate it with an ethnic group that had already existed in America for centuries, but had managed to remain relatively unique during that time.
While Bernard tells the story of the Cajuns, he debunks a few myths along the way, one of which deals with the origins of the word “Acadiana.” It’s generally accepted that KATC-TV 3 coined the name “Acadiana” in 1963. Bernard found that the Crowley Daily-Signal (now the Post-Signal) had used the word as early as 1956 in reference to Acadia Parish, even though KATC would later use the name heavily in its marketing. In 1970, the state Legislature made the name official and defined it as a 22-parish region of southwest Louisiana.
Bernard also debunks another longstanding myth concerning the origins of the word “coonass.” In 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was created to restore the use of French in Louisiana and to make the entire state bilingual by teaching French in the schools. James “Jimmy” Domengeaux was appointed chair of CODOFIL by Gov. John McKeithen.
Domengeaux claimed that the word “coonass” was derived from the French word “conasse” and meant either a stupid person or a prostitute without medical papers – in essence, a dirty whore. Domengeaux claimed that the word was used by Frenchmen referring to Cajun GIs in France during WWII. Bernard does not speculate on the origins of the word, but his research indicates that Domengeaux’s origin of the word is improbable. He writes, “The earliest known use of the word can be traced to April 1943, when U.S. military photographers in the South Pacific captured the image of a C-47 transport plane nicknamed the Cajun Coonass, more than a year before the first Cajun GIs landed in France on D-Day.”
The Cajuns also explores the revitalization of Cajun pride in the 1960s. Bernard contends that two parallel movements fostered a renewed interest in Cajun identity. One was led by Domengeaux and the efforts of CODOFIL, and the other was a more unstructured grassroots movement, with its symbolic roots in Dewey Balfa’s 1964 musical performance at the Newport Folk Festival. While one camp organized French educational programs through the state, the other camp played and listened to traditional Cajun music and even organized a festival to celebrate it. In the first Tribute to Cajun Music at Blackham Coliseum, which seats 8,000 people, 12,000 people showed up for the show. At times, the two different camps clashed with one another, but the friction created a momentum that has helped sustain the culture.
After the Cajuns renewed their own interest in their heritage, the rest of the world’s curiosity was also piqued. Tourism sparked not only economic growth, but also an interest by outsiders in the unique culture. Bernard contends that while the outsiders did not pose an immediate threat, they began a process, rooted in the tourism of the late 1950s, that slowly wore down the cultural wall between Cajuns and the outside world. While the revenues from tourism may have helped the economy in the short term, Bernard writes that “the tourism boom ultimately harmed Cajun culture by repackaging it in caricature for mass consumption.”
By the 1980s, Bernard writes, “Mainstream society had not only discovered Cajun culture but embraced it, usurped it and reshaped it almost beyond recognition into a highly marketable commodity.” For example, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits liberally uses the term Cajun in association with its advertising, even though the company originated in New Orleans and also frequently relies on the New Orleans connection in its ads as well.
And while tourists were buying plastic alligators to take home for souvenirs, the tourism industry did nothing to correct the misrepresentation of Cajuns. Bernard writes, “The tourism industry nonetheless successfully convinced the media and the public that New Orleans was veritably oozing with authentic Cajun culture.” In fact, a recent television commercial from the Louisiana Office of Tourism promoting Louisiana’s music portrays a Cajun fiddler, a Zydeco accordionist and a country singer leading an entire melting pot of singing, strolling, culturally diverse people merrily down Bourbon Street, accompanied by the brassy, peppy notes of a genuine New Orleans funeral brass band.
But while the culture was being packaged and marketed, money was being made, and the once most prolific and defining characteristic of the Cajuns was disappearing – the French language.
According to Bernard’s research, during World War II there was a 17 percent decline in Cajuns who spoke French. The decline has continued until today. He says if you measure CODOFIL’s efforts by its original intentions in 1968 – to make all of Louisiana bilingual – then it has failed.
“But,” he points out, “I think it’s probably true, if it were not for CODOFIL, even less people would speak French today than before.” He also says that CODOFIL has been successful in fostering ties with French interests and forging new economic ties, attracting tourists from French-speaking countries and, perhaps most importantly, acting as a media watchdog, insisting that Cajuns be portrayed in a positive light and not as backwards, knuckle-dragging, backwoods swamp-dwellers.
Even French immersion programs, Bernard says, won’t save Cajun French from extinction. He says it’s certainly beneficial to learn another language, but the French that is being taught is not the French of his forefathers. The irony is that in 1940 there was a small, educated group of Cajuns who spoke English as their first language and the mass of ordinary Cajuns spoke French. With the French immersion programs, the majority of Cajuns will continue to speak English as their first language and a small, educated group will speak French as well. He says, “French immersion, in a way, is helping to change the cultural landscape of Louisiana into something it wasn’t before.”
While Bernard provides a history of the Cajuns against the backdrop of mainstream American culture, he’s not willing to venture into predicting the future of his heritage. He says, “It’s not a historical thing to do to predict the future.”
In The Cajuns, he writes, “Ultimately, the future of the Cajun people remains unclear. They may succumb entirely to the process of Americanization or stagger along indefinitely on the edge of extinction, or they may rebound, flowering in a new Age of Ethnicity. Regardless, the almost instinctive ability of the Cajuns to swim in the mainstream will assure their survival for at least a few more generations.”
Bernard suggests that even though the Cajuns have lost pieces of their heritage during the last 60 years, they may be retaining some of their identity through symbolic ethnicity, a concept expressed by sociologist Herbert J. Gans. Cajuns will remain Cajun by participating in preservation groups, attending Festivals Acadiens, boiling crawfish and listening to or playing Cajun music, without practicing the daily folkways of their forefathers. Bernard points to the bilingual street signs as an example of symbolic ethnicity. If the majority of Louisiana residents cannot speak or read French, then why are there signs in both languages? While it may not serve a practical purpose, it serves as a reminder that there is, however tenuous, still a connection to that French past.
“Maw Maw and Paw Paw didn’t go to Festivals Acadiens,” Bernard says. “They went to a house dance. Dancing and eating Cajun food and listening to Cajun music at Mulate’s is a staged cultural event. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. I’m just saying that it’s happened. In 1940, Cajuns didn’t do that. They didn’t go to restaurants and eat Cajun food and dance at the same time. If you wanted to dance, you’d go dance. If you wanted to go eat, you’d go eat.”
Like Bernard, Jacques Henry is also interested in Cajun culture.
Born in Paris and educated at the Sorbonne, Henry’s relationship with Louisiana began in 1978 when he conducted field work here for his master’s thesis. He returned in 1984 for good. He was drawn to the culture and the people of southwest Louisiana. A big music fan, he remembers “being face to face” with Zachary Richard, the Neville Brothers and John Lee Hooker at Grant Street Dancehall. Now an associate professor of sociology at UL, he has also served as CODOFIL’s director of communications and its executive director. He recently co-authored Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity with Carl L. Bankston III.
Henry and Bankston wanted to know what had become of the descendants of the Acadian refugees since they had made Louisiana their home. More importantly, they wondered what continued to make the Cajuns a distinctive group of people, not only in their own eyes, but also in the eyes of others as well. Henry says the question of who’s Cajun is one he’s been struggling with for years. He jokes that he chooses “to accept the simplest form – people who say they are.” But the answer isn’t that simple. In his book, he asks the question, “… how does Cajun ethnicity endure when its ancestral roots are becoming more distant and its core cultural components are apparently waning?”
Henry also argues that the decline of the French language is the largest factor contributing to the evolving Cajun identity. Cultural preservationists have long argued that without the French language, Cajun culture will die. Henry agrees that the culture will die without its language, but that it will be a slow process over the course of generations, and other factors would also contribute to the demise of the culture. Henry writes that “it is probable that Cajun French will survive in a special niche: it will be the language of Cajun music.”
But what his research suggests for the present and the near future is that even though Cajuns are assimilating into mainstream culture, they will remain Cajun by what they value. He says, “As long as they value this connection (with the French language), as long as they place an emphasis on this, they will continue to view the language and the folkways, that will probably be much weaker in the future than they are now, but they will still be alive in some way.”
In other words, what will continue to define Cajuns as a people will no longer be what they do or say, or even the language they say it in, but in their shared perception of who they are. Henry says, “If we think of culture in the old, traditional way – as some kind of suitcase full of things that generations pass on to one another – we’re not understanding culture right. It’s not something that’s packaged at one point and then passed on undisturbed; you just add a couple of stickers on it and it’s now yours. Culture is something that generations and groups – whether families, social groups or larger groups – are going to make sense of their circumstances to live with one another, to go through life. If we understand culture in this very dynamic way, then we can understand (how) a way of doing things disappears because it’s no longer adapted to one’s reality. We should not necessarily decry it or laminate this, because a new way is devised, a new approach is thought of, to make sense of a new reality.”
But how do the figures that the Cajun French language is disappearing strike those who have worked so diligently to preserve the language and culture? What do they make of these two different books that draw the same conclusions from two different angles, that despite their efforts and good intentions, Cajun French is waning and the culture as we know it may not be far behind?
Folklorist Barry Ancelet says that he’s glad to see new books published on Cajun culture. He says Bernard’s book is “a very interesting look at our recent history and some of the issues that got us to this point. He did a very good job of interpreting the issues.” He says Henry also did a fine job compiling data and statistics of ordinary people in order to tell their story.
CODOFIL President Warren Perrin is also glad to see that research on the Cajuns is still ongoing. He says, “Both are excellent works, and I’m glad we have them.” He doesn’t argue with the numbers that indicate a decline in the French language, and he says he believes that CODOFIL has helped to prolong the life of the Cajun culture by prolonging the life of French in Louisiana. Perrin also points to CODOFIL’s ability to keep French alive for “cultural, economic and tourist purposes.” He points to Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits as an example. After negotiating with Popeyes, Perrin has managed to sign the fried chicken dynasty up as a major sponsor of Festival International de Louisiane.
And, meanwhile, there’s a new chapter of Cajun history being written. Amid the current nationalistic fervor that generally coincides with a nation at war, France’s refusal to support the actions of the Bush administration has drawn criticism from some Americans.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, changed the name of French fries to freedom fries in Congress’ cafeterias. Just two weeks ago, The Daily Advertiser reported that Gov. Mike Foster blamed French President Jacques Chirac for the war in Iraq. Foster said, “We don’t have a beef with the French people, but, frankly, the president of France has not only not tried to help us; he has tried to hurt us. I don’t know that we would have had a war had he supported us. I’m upset about it.” Even Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, jumped on the bandwagon when he removed the French version of his Web site to protest France’s lack of support for the war. His spokesman, Ken Johnson, told Mike Hasten of The Daily Advertiser’s Capitol Bureau, “Billy, throughout his life, has been fiercely proud of his French and Cajun heritage, but clearly at this time, he is disappointed with some of the decisions being made by his ancestors.”
With such anti-French sentiment these days, what will become of a region like southwest Louisiana, so heavily influenced by French heritage and culture? What will become of the tourism industry, which has touted the French heritage as one of Louisiana’s assets? Is it possible, in the light of current events, that the Cajuns aren’t French anymore? And if they are still French, will they deny their heritage in order to prove their patriotism?