Although the term "Cajun" is an English corruption of Acadian, an appellation applied to the French pioneers in the Bay of Fundy Basin and their modern descendants scattered throughout the world, the two words are by no means synonymous.
What does "Cajun" mean?
Cajun has become a euphemism for individuals of myriad backgrounds who share the French-based, synthetic culture orginially brought to rural south Louisiana by the Acadian exiles of the eighteenth century and transformed over the next two centuries by cultural exchanges between various French-speaking groups in Louisiana's Gallic melting pot.
These cultural interchanges began shortly after the migration of approximately 3,000 Acadian exiles to Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. The were driven from present-day Nova Scotia by British military forces in 1755. During the early stages of the French and Indian War, thousands of Acadians were sent into exile in the English seaboard colonies, England, and France. The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Anglo-French contest for North American hegemony, granted the exiles an eighteen-month grace period in which to relocate on French soil. Following ratification of the treaty, most of the Acadians in England and the British seaboard colonies capitalized upon the opportunity to flee their oppressors. During their course of their subsequent wanderings in search of a new homeland, 2,500-3,000 Acadians congregated in Lower Louisiana, following successive migrations by sea from New York, Halifax and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Maryland, Pennsylvania, France, and St. Pierre and Miquelon between 1764-1788.
Arrival in Louisiana:
Settled along Bayous Teche and Lafourche and the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which were then being opened for settlement the Acadians quickly adapted to their new surroundings. Demonstrating tremendous industriousness, pragmatism, and frugality, the exiles generally achieved a standard of living comparable to that of their pre-dispersal settlements within a decade of their arrival in the Bayou County.
Despite their success, the Acadian immigrants were not welcomed by many individuals within Louisiana's established French-speaking population--the white Creoles. The most ambitious Creoles hoped to recreate French feudalism along the Mississippi--with themselves as the local aristocracy. Their world view contrasted sharply with that of the Acadians, descendants of French peasants, who had consciously attempted to divest their colonial society of all French feudalistic trappings during their 150-year residence in North America. The inevitable result was conflict, and the clashes between Creole pretension and Acadian egalitarianism served to reinforce the boundaries between the two groups and to force a permanent ascribed association between the Acadians--popularly known as Cajuns by the 1860s--and poverty.
This stereotype persisted largely unchanged to the modern period because of socio-economic developments mobile Acadians quickly divested themselves of their cultural baggage as the crossed class lines, identifying themselves as Creoles in the early nineteenth century and later as simply Americans, when Anglos emerged as the local economic kingpins in the late antebellum period. Meanwhile, downwardly mobile white Creoles, Anglos, and, later, European immigrants found themselves tires to the increasingly denigrated Acadian/Cajun community--initially through their low economic position and later through intermarriage. Over time, these non-Acadian Cajuns became completely absorbed by the host culture that Cajuns today are completely unaware of their families' actual origins.
Cajuns in the Twentieth Century:
This association between identity and poverty was reinforced by the virtual collapse of the south Lousiana economy after the Civil War, which reduced yeomen to tenantry. By 1900, nearly half of all Cajun families in southwestern Louisiana were tenant farmers. The resulting economic hardships forced many Cajuns to migrate to newly established east Texas shipyards and refineries in the early twentieth century.
Those impoverished Cajuns who remained in Louisiana found themselves besieged by the forces of intolerance. Fired by the prevailing Progressivism of the age, the state government mandated compulsory education in 1916 and compulsory English education in 1921. In the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and early '60s, co-opted members of the old Acadian elite, who constituted a significant portion of the south Louisiana teaching faculties, joined their Anglo colleagues in a various attempt to stamp out the French language spoken by Cajuns. This linguistic campaign, which effectively denigrated all things Cajun, gradually drove the culture to the brink of extinction, as Cajuns internalized the negative values associated with their culture by outsiders.
In the late 1960s, however, a grassroots backlash against such treatment gained sufficient momentum to attract the attention of the Louisiana government. In 1968, responding to mounting political pressure the state legislature established the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana ostensibly to halt and then reverse the decline of the Cajun communtiy's core cultural institutions. The legislature subsequently designated a twenty-two parish, French-speaking region of southern Louisiana as Acadiana, in honor of the area's Acadian pioneers.
The following three decades have witnessed a remarkable cultural renaissance within the once reviled community. In the 1970s, Cajun Music enjoyed a extraordinary revival and, in the 1980s, Cajun cuisine gained international notoriety.
by Carl A. Brasseaux