The Louisiana descendants of the Acadians have a rich, complex history. But being Cajun is more — and less — than you think.
Photos by Robin May
It’s a steamy Friday night in late August. A few friends and I are on my back porch for a music session that is typically more jelly than jam: a couple of guitars and fiddles, a banjo, bongos and a lot of flubbed chords. Every now and then we fall into a deep, exhilarating groove. Every now and then.
We’re sweating into our light beers, searching for a harmony and frequently tuning up in the languid humidity.
Bill Fontenot, a biologist by education, naturalist by trade and a fine writer of roots rock and folk songs, drops a casual remark that raises eyebrows: “Technically I’m not a Cajun.”
It’s an odd thing for a dude named Fontenot who was born and raised in Ville Platte to say. Bill goes on to explain that his ancestors were French marines dispatched to Fort Toulouse near Mobile, Ala., then the eastern outpost of France’s Louisiana colony. They later migrated to South Louisiana and integrated with the French-speaking Cajuns. As Bill explains, he doesn’t trace his ancestry to Acadie, the region in maritime Canada from which French-speaking settlers were expelled by the British during Le Grand Dérangement or the Great Expulsion, that eight-year period of upheaval that began in 1755. He is not, technically, a Cajun, which is an anglicization of “Cadien” or “Acadien.” Acadian.
“Probably most Fontenots consider themselves Cajun. But, history tells us otherwise,” Bill says in a follow-up conversation. “I say I’m Cajunoid,” he half jokes, adding that he doesn’t “mind being lumped into Cajun — the Cajun descriptor. It’s just that the story is so much richer and so much more diverse than the Acadian expulsion. There was so much more going on. The first Germans got to Louisiana not long after Iberville, and they’re pretty much lost in the mix.”
The story of the Cajuns, the Cliff Notes version anyway, is well-known to most around here now. Expelled by the Brits, they scattered to the American colonies and back to Europe, from where they migrated to Louisiana. Their story, through the heroine Evangeline, was memorialized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A ton of scholarly research beginning in the 20th century has peeled away the ethnic, linguistic and cultural layers of their very complex identity.
By many accounts this Acadian-French diaspora in the mid 18th century didn’t think of itself as French. They had forged an Acadian identity. France, where they were often treated as second-class citizens following the deportation from Acadia, was foreign to them. Louisiana beckoned.
Bill’s original comment got me wondering: What is Cajun? Who are Cajuns? Does my one-eighth French Louisiana ancestry qualify me? What about Steve Riley, arguably the best Cajun accordionist alive and leader of one of the most popular Cajun bands? His name is Irish. Or Christine Balfa, a fine Cajun musician and daughter of one of Cajun music’s Mt. Rushmore figures? Her forebears were Scottish Balfours who migrated to Louisiana from Appalachia.
Turns out the story of the Cajuns — the things we know collectively as “Cajun” — is a lot richer and more complicated than the swashbuckle of Beausoleil Broussard or the cinematic drama of Le Grand Dérangement. If there’s one word that keeps popping up in my conversations with self-identifying Cajuns it’s “inclusion.”
LIFE OF RILEY
“In the ’80s when I was in high school — I graduated in ’87 — when all of my friends were listening to Foreigner and Toto and all that crappy pop, I was listening to the Balfa Brothers and Marc and Ann Savoy, and they picked on me, gave me shit for it,” recalls Steve Riley, the famous Cajun with the Irish name. “But for the pep rallies at school, me and Geno Delafose and some of Bois Sec Ardoin’s grandkids who were in school with us, we would break out those instruments and play the Mardi Gras song for the pep rallies and it would fire up people more than anything.”
Above all others, Steve’s biography makes the case that Cajun is at least seven parts culture to three parts genealogy. From his childhood in Mamou he grew up at the knee of Dennis McGee, the French-speaking, Irish-named father of Cajun fiddle, one of the first Cajun musicians to be recorded and another visage on that Cajun Music Mt. Rushmore. By his early teens Steve was performing with Dewey Balfa, a fiddler who came a generation after McGee.
Other faces carved onto the Cajun music monument bear similarly un-Cajun surnames: Lawrence Walker, Nathan Abshire, Dewey Segura. Steve bristles at the thought that he’s not Cajun.
“Yeah I’m Cajun,” he says flatly. “I don’t care if my last name was Russian or German. I was born in Mamou, La., and raised by my mom who is a Guillory, which is French. My grandfather is Irish, and the Rileys I’ve traced all the way back to Ireland. Regardless, even if you didn’t come from Canada, I think if you’re born and raised here and especially in a place like Mamou and you grew up speaking French, man, that has everything to do with it.”
If you include Courtney Granger, whose great uncle was Dewey Balfa, a Balfa has played every Festivals Acadiens (et Creoles, a cultural addendum that was added to the festival’s name just a few years ago) since its inception in 1977. (The event traces its roots to 1974’s Tribute to Cajun Music held in Blackham Coliseum and to the Bayou Food Festival, hence the plural Festivals.)
Christine Balfa, the youngest of Dewey and Hilda Fruge Balfa’s five children, grew up in Basile, a small town a few miles west of Eunice nestled on the border of Acadia and Evangeline parishes. Christine began playing Festivals Acadiens in her teens. She founded Balfa Toujours (Toujours is French for “always”) as a tribute to her father, and currently performs with another popular Cajun band she helped found, Bonsoir, Catin, among other projects.
“I’ve never thought of myself as not being Cajun,” Christine says, almost amused at the thought that she’s anything but. “No matter where you came from — there were two Balfa brothers who came from North Carolina [in the 19th century] — once people from the outside came to our area they were so immersed and before long their native tongue wasn’t their first language anymore; they started speaking French. The Germans who came here still spoke German, but they also learned to speak French. The Native Americans started speaking French because the Acadian culture was so strong and inclusive, not exclusive, and I think that’s a huge thing about our culture that’s helped it survive is its ability to be inclusive.”
“The strict definition would be having Acadian blood in you,” says Warren Perrin, the Lafayette attorney and board member for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana who famously waged a campaign to wring an apology from Queen Elizabeth II of England for the Great Expulsion. “But I don’t think there’s many people other than a professor at the University of Moncton — Maurice Basque — who would take the hardline position, and he has clearly, to call yourself Acadian you must have lived in old Acadie. That to me is a little too stringent, although Maurice is a good friend of mine. I take the view, you can be acculturized — acculturalization — and we don’t make this an exclusive club; we’ve always been an inclusive people.”
Warren attributes Cajun inclusiveness to the Acadians’ early and warm relationship with the Native Americans known as the Mi’kmaq, with whom the Acadians forged trading partnerships soon after settling what are now Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The Acadians even intermingled through marriage with the Mi’kmaq, creating an ethnic subgroup in Canada that today calls itself the Metis (May-tee).
“To take in people, to have a big tent, a large family, is more Native American than French,” Warren says. “You meet a Cajun in a grocery store and you start talking and by the end of the conversation he might invite you to his house for gumbo that night. In France, French people are not that way: they’ll meet you for a drink or they’ll meet you for dinner but you won’t be invited into the home until you really become close to them. The idea of having a large family — calling your fifth cousins family, seventh cousins family — that was more of a Mi’kmaq Native American trait because [the Acadians] had inter-married with the Mi’kmaq; they had picked up a lot of their ways.”
The name Perrin goes back to France without Professor Basque’s obligatory encampment in Acadia — a nuance that had some Louisianans of Acadian descent returning from the most recent Congrés Mondial in Canada, at which Basque was an intellectual force, feeling like “second-class Cajuns,” as one put it.
But Warren’s mom was a Broussard, the most Acadian of Cajun names.
“I am a Cajun because I have Acadian blood. But I’m a Perrin. Like Bill Fontenot, my people came on a boat directly from France,” Warren says. “And all of these French people — Swiss, French, German — knew a place to start over again was Louisiana, and they knew the French had been welcomed there for a couple of centuries. So my Perrin ancestry became as Cajun as my Broussard mother through acculturalization. That’s why I say we’re inclusive, we’re a big tent — come on in. You can be a Texan or a Missourian, but if you’ve been here and you participate, you support the culture, no one is going to say you can’t call yourself Cajun. I’m going to tell you, you can’t call yourself coonass, but you can call yourself Cajun!”
HOW LONG IS LONG ENOUGH?
“If somebody suggested that Nathan Abshire wasn’t Cajun it would really surprise and disappoint him — and be wrong,” notes Dr. Barry Ancelet, a UL folklorist and, along with Dr. Carl Brasseaux, one of the preeminent scholars of Cajun culture. “First of all his mother and his grandmother probably had some Acadian ancestry — they did undoubtedly — but even his last name, when does a last name become Acadian? Hard to say. If somebody suggested Lawrence Walker wasn’t Cajun it would probably surprise him, too.”
For Barry, time and adaptation — encouraged by that Cajun inclusiveness — go a long way in making someone Cajun. Go to New Iberia and tell a Romero or an Ortego — Spanish names in a “Cajun” city named for the peninsula where Spain, Portugal and Andorra are located — they’re not Cajun and you might get punched in the nose.
“I’ll tell you where the real rub is,” Barry adds, “somebody like Dirk Powell who moved here from Ohio or somewhere, married Christine Balfa, Dewey Balfa’s daughter, and lived here and learned to speak Cajun French, learned the accordion, won the Accordion Shoot Out at Mulate’s several years in a row, makes a better gumbo than most people I know. Is he a Cajun?
“What I say is that in some ways he’s adopted the culture and the culture has adopted him. In another way, I think it would be fair to expect a certain amount of time or a certain amount of processing to produce that. Typically I would think it would take at least a generation to make it work.”
As Barry points out, he can’t move to Brownsville, Texas, fall in love with and marry a Mexican girl and start calling himself Latino. But if his children and grandchildren adopt the culture — the language, the foodways, the customs — then it’s another story.
So what about the guy named Richard who was born in Shreveport, pulls for the Dallas Cowboys and ...
Barry heads me off at the pass: “You don’t have to put him in Shreveport,” he says, running with the hypothetical. “He’s born and raised in Lafayette. He doesn’t speak Cajun French. He’s allergic to seafood. Hates gumbo. And he’s a jazz aficionado and he hates Cajun music. What do you do with him? Is he still Cajun? In a way, yeah. But he’s certainly not living the culture. But I don’t know that I would dare tell him, ‘You’re not Cajun anymore.’ It’s a complicated thing, but I think it might be important that if we’re going to err we should err on the side of inclusion.”
That word again.
NO BLOOD TEST REQUIRED
“I think I only recently decided or felt it or felt sure of it,” Todd Mouton says of his Cajun identity. The executive director of Louisiana Folk Roots and music promoter has done as much as anyone over the last decade to ensure the Cajun renaissance continues unabated. “Yes, my family goes back to France through Nova Scotia, but there are lots of twists and turns along the way. ... Fortunately we live in an era where the concept of a blood test is happily outdated.”
A 1985 St. Thomas More grad who went on to earn a degree from Boston College, Todd has been putting a ribbon on a video project he did with Zachary Richard in conjunction with Richard’s upcoming record. Todd doesn’t have a “Cajun” accent, whatever that is exactly. He’s from a generation of Cajun descendents, like my wife, whose parents and grandparents were shamed for being Cajun, were compelled to assimilate into mainstream culture, who may have passed on the kitchen traditions and Catholicism, but not the language.
“In my family, my grandfather was raised speaking French but only spoke it behind closed doors in his home,” Todd recalls. “My grandmother was from south Texas. My dad didn’t learn it. I would hear my grandfather speak on the phone with his friends behind a door, and when I learned it in high school it didn’t seem to be the same French and he didn’t really seem to be interested in teaching me that. So the chain was broken there.”
“But again, who’s Cajun?” Todd continues rhetorically. “How would you find Cajuns? What is even the one question or the 10 questions to decide that? Would you go to downtown Lafayette or Breaux Bridge and say, ‘OK, all the Cajuns on this side’? And what’s really the value in that, because isn’t Cajun a celebration of diversity? Isn’t the whole concept the idea of immigrants meeting indigenous people and blending and sharing?”
As for Barry Ancelet’s hypothetical Richard who is totally mainstream, Todd says, “I don’t see how you could call a person like that a Cajun. I just don’t. It’s the carrying on of the traditions.
“Ultimately I think it’s a mind set and it’s an attitude toward life and, again, cultural aspects of life — music, dance, food, language, architecture, art, just the way you spend your time. Lifestyle.”
BLANK LIKE A CAJUN
Steve Riley, the famous Cajun with the Irish name, is a wellspring of stories from deep inside the belly of the culture: being led by hand when he was a kid into Mamou bars on Mardi Gras by his “babysitter,” Dennis McGee; hearing some of the titans of Cajun music jamming in his grandfather Riley’s living room. But one story involving Marc Savoy, the Eunice accordion maker — and chemical engineer by education — who is husband to chanteuse Ann Savoy and father to gifted musicians Joel and Wilson, may sum up “being Cajun” best:
“I heard Marc Savoy tell somebody one time, this guy who walked in, bought an accordion and said, ‘OK, now how do I learn to play it like a Cajun?’” Steve recalls.
“He said, ‘Well, first of all you got to live like a Cajun, you got to eat like a Cajun, you got to f**k like a Cajun and then you’ll learn to play accordion like a Cajun.’
“And I thought, ‘God damn, this poor guy, you got to give him something better than that, Marc!’ But that’s Marc Savoy for you.”
And maybe — maybe — that’s Cajun for you, too.
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