June 13, 2002 Halifax Herald

World would be worse if Cajun culture died

HISTORY'S LEGACY has always been a fascinating subject for me. Thus, when Warren Perrin, president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), an organization also charged with the task of preserving Acadian culture in Louisiana, sent me a memo that referred to a three-day special report published by New Orleans' Times-Picayune about the status of Louisiana's Cajun culture, it piqued my interest. Especially so, in this instance, because the Cajuns are descendants of Acadians deported from their homeland in Mi'kmaq territory by British Governor Charles Lawrence.

To help satisfy my curiosity about the present conditions of these descendants of the Mi'kmaq's Acadian allies, I went looking for the report on the Internet, eventually making e-mail contact with its principal author, Ron Thibodeaux, the paper's suburban St. Tammany Parish bureau chief and staff writer (staff writer Angela Rozas also contributed). Ron sent me copies of the series, and I sent him copies of several columns that I had written about Acadians and a copy of We Were Not the Savages.

Before proceeding, I want to mention a pleasant fallout for me from the contacts I've established with the Cajun community. Since the early 1990s, I've exchanged letters, phone calls and e-mails with Warren, and now for the past few months with Ron; I have never met either one, but, because of our correspondence and some similar interests, we consider ourselves friends. This highlights the value of having an open mind and a willingness to learn about, and appreciate, the great things that other cultures have to offer.

In this instance, from reading Ron's and Angela's reports, I've concluded that Cajun culture has a great many things that a non-Cajun can enjoy immensely. To help depict adequately a few of them, I'll quote heavily from the series.

Thibodeaux asks several questions and supplies these answers:

Who are the Cajuns? "The Cajun people were easier to define when they were isolated from the United States, when their forebears' simple lifestyle of farming and fishing still flourished across the 22 parishes that make up Acadiana. Centuries ago, Cajuns arrived as refugees, adapted to their new home and helped tame it. Today, Cajuns remain bound by language, cuisine, music and shared heritage."

How did they get to Louisiana? "The history of Louisiana's Cajuns began in 1755 with le grand derangement, the expulsion of French-speaking Catholics from Acadie, the present-day Canadian province of Nova Scotia . . ."

Ties to the land: "The Acadians' former homeland in Canada hardly could have been more different from South Louisiana - a hot, muggy land of swamps and bayous, mosquitoes and alligators, grassy prairies and coastal marshes. But the Acadians adapted and thrived as farmers, fishers and trappers as successive generations stayed close together on the farms or along the waterfront. . . . The ties to the land and water remain strong bonds for the Cajuns, just like their hard work punctuated with time for play, their hospitality, their values of faith and family. 'We're a close-knit people because that was bred into us,' said Allen Leger, 72, a farmer from Iota. 'Cajun is a way of life.'"

The authors give this description about an old-timer living in the coastal marshes: "The world may have changed around him, but time might as well be standing still for 92-year-old Dewey Patin, who spends nearly every day fishing or hunting. In 2001, his routine isn't much different than it was in 1921. That suits him fine."

Cajuns, like citizens of many other distinct minority cultures, have long suffered the evils of negative stereotyping. They have been depicted by English-speaking society as a crude people, ignorant yokels speaking broken English with a French accent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ignoramuses even gave them a degrading name, "coonass," which word the Louisiana legislature condemned the use of in 1981.

Ignorance is not bliss. If only the name labelers and the authors of biased, negative propaganda about Cajuns and other bigots had half the civility they have, our world would be a great place to live. Having a sense of humour, the ability to enjoy life, the knack to be hospitable to others, and embracing the extended community with love and loyalty aren't things to be looked down on, but things to envy.

Cajun cooking took the world by storm in the 1980s and, in the process, has acquired a boat load of impersonators. Some of these fake products were so bad that it began to stigmatize the culinary delight. The real thing is great. When buying Cajun foods, if you want the genuine article, look for the following on the label: "Certified Cajun."

The man responsible for starting the world's love affair with the cooking was chef Paul Prudhomme. Thibodeaux relates that, in 1985, "(Prudhomme) sets up shop for one month in New York, introducing his famous blackened redfish to the rest of the world, touching off an international Cajun cooking craze."

A question being asked by many Cajuns is: "Is the Cajun culture dying?" I would like to think not; let's hope that it's only modernizing. The world would be the worse if it were to disappear.

If you're interested in finding out more about Cajun revival, CODOFIL's Web site is: http://www.codofil.org/english/index.html

Ron Thibodeaux can be contacted by e-mail at: rthibodeaux@timespicayune.com or by phone at 985-898-4834; and Angela Rozas at 504-467-1726.

Daniel N. Paul


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