Cajuns (les Cadiens) are an ethnic group mainly living in Louisiana, consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles and peoples of other ethnicities with whom the Acadians eventually intermarried on the semitropical frontier. Today, the Cajuns make up a significant portion of south Louisiana's population, and have exerted an enormous impact on the state's culture.
The word "Cajun" is a variant of Acadian, combining aphesis (dropping of the leading letter) with slurring the final syllable (as with the American pejorative "Injun" for "Indian"). There is some dispute over the origin of the term Acadia; some suggest that it came from the name of the ancient Greek region of Arcadia; others suggest that it is a derivation of the Mikmaq Indian word cadique, meaning "a good place to set up camp."
The Cajuns retain a unique dialect of the French language and numerous other cultural traits that distinguish them as an ethnic group. Cajuns were officially recognized by the U.S. government as a national ethnic group in 1980 per a discrimination lawsuit filed in federal district court. Presided over by Judge Edwin Hunter, the case, known as Roach v. Dresser Industries Valve and Instrument Division (494 F.Supp. 215, D.C. La., 1980), hinged on the issue of the Cajuns' ethnicity. Significantly, Judge Hunter held in his ruling that:
We conclude that plaintiff is protected by Title VII's ban on national origin discrimination. The Louisiana Acadian (Cajun) is alive and well. He is 'up front' and 'main stream.' He is not asking for any special treatment. By affording coverage under the 'national origin' clause of Title VII he is afforded no special privilege. He is given only the same protection as those with English, Spanish, French, Iranian, Portuguese, Mexican, Italian, Irish, et al., ancestors.
The Acadians were evicted from Acadia (which has since been resettled and consists of parts of what is now known as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, Canada) in the period 1755 - 1763; this has become known as the Great Upheaval or Le Grand Dérangement. At the time there was a war in what is now Canada between France and Great Britain over the colony of New France. This war is known in the United States as the French and Indian War, though it was only one theater of the Seven Years' War.
The migration from Canada was spurred by the Treaty of Paris (1763) which ended the war. The treaty terms provided 18 months for unrestrained emigration from Canada. Only after many of the Cajuns had moved to Louisiana did they discover France had secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain in the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762). The formal announcement of the transfer was made in December 1764. The Cajuns took part in the Rebellion of 1768 in an attempt to prevent the transfer. The Spanish formally asserted control in 1769.
The Acadians were scattered throughout the eastern seaboard. Families were split and put on ships with different destinations. Many ended up in what was then French-colonized Louisiana, reaching as far north as Dakota territory. France had ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, prior to their defeat by Britain, and two years before the first Acadians began settling in Louisiana. The interim French officials provided land and supplies. The Spanish governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, later proved to be hospitable, permitting the Acadians to continue to speak their language, practice their native religion, Roman Catholicism—which was also the official religion of Spain—and otherwise pursue their livelihoods with minimal interference. Some families and individuals did travel north through the Louisiana territory to set up homes as far north as Wisconsin. Cajuns fought in the American Revolution. Although they fought for Spanish General Galvez, their contribution to the winning of the war has been recognized.
"Galvez leaves New Orleans with an army of Spanish regulars and the Louisiana militia made up of 600 Cajun volunteers and captures the British strongholds of Fort Bute at Bayou Manchac, across from the Acadian settlement at St. Gabriel. And on September 21, they attack and capture Baton Rouge"
A review of the list of members shows many common Cajun names among soldiers who participated in the Battle of Baton Rouge and the Battle for West Florida. The Galvez Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was formed in memory of those soldiers. Their fight against the British was partially in response to their treatment by the British in evicting them from Acadia.
The Cajuns who settled in southern Louisiana originally did so in the area just west of what is now New Orleans, mainly along the Mississippi River. Later, they were moved by the Spanish colonial government to areas west and southwest of New Orleans, in a region later named Acadiana, where they shared the swamps and prairies with the Attakapa and Chitimacha Native American tribes.
Mostly secluded until the early 1900s, Cajuns today are largely assimilated into the mainstream society and culture. Some Cajuns live in communities outside of Louisiana. Also, some people identify themselves as Cajun culturally despite lacking Acadian ancestry.
There is reason to believe that not all Cajuns descend solely from Acadian exiles who settled in south Louisiana in the eighteenth century. There are Cajuns who have also descended from other ethnic groups with whom those exiles intermarried over many generations, including British, Spanish, German, Italian, Native American, Métis and French Creole settlers. Historian Carl A. Brasseaux has asserted that it was this process of intermarriage that created the Cajuns in the first place..
Non-Acadian French Creoles in rural areas were absorbed into Cajun communities. Some Cajun parishes, such as Evangeline and Avoyelles, possess relatively few inhabitants of Acadian origin. Their populations descend in many cases from settlers who migrated to the region from Quebec, Mobile, or directly from France. Theirs is regarded as the purest dialect of French spoken within Acadiana. Regardless, it is generally acknowledged that Acadian influences have prevailed in most sections of south Louisiana.
Many Cajuns also have ancestors who were not French. Many of the original settlers in French Acadia were actually English, for example the Melansons (originally Mallinson). German and Italian colonists began to settle in Louisiana before and after the Louisiana Purchase, particularly on the German Coast along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. People of Spanish or Hispanic origin, including many Canary Islanders and a number of early Filipino settlers (notably in Saint Malo) from the cross-Pacific Galleon and finally descendants of black slaves. Trade with Mexico, and some Cuban Americans, have settled along the Gulf Coast and in some cases intermarried into Cajun families. Anglo-American settlers in the region often were assimilated into Cajun communities, especially those who arrived before the English language became predominant in southern Louisiana.
One obvious result of this cultural mixture is the variety of surnames that are common among the Cajun population. Surnames of the original Acadian settlers (which are documented) have been augmented by French and even non-French family names that have merged into Cajun populations. The spelling of many family names was changed for a variety of reasons (see, for example, Eaux).
During the early part of the 20th century, attempts were made to suppress Cajun culture by measures such as forbidding the use of the Cajun French language in schools. After the Compulsory Education Act forced Cajun children to attend formal schools, American teachers threatened, punished, and often beat their Cajun students in an attempt to force them to use English (a language many of them had not been exposed to before). During World War II, Cajuns often served as French interpreters for American forces in France; this helped to overcome prejudice.
In 1968 the organization of Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was founded to preserve the French language in Louisiana. Besides advocating for their legal rights, Cajuns also recovered for themselves a sense of ethnic pride and appreciation for their ancestry. Since the mid-1950s, relations between the Cajuns of the U.S. Gulf Coast and Acadians in the Maritimes and New England have been renewed, forming an Acadian identity common to Louisiana, New England, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
State Senator Dudley LeBlanc ("Coozan Dud", a Cajun slang nickname for "Cousin Dudley") took a group of Cajuns to Nova Scotia in 1955 for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the expulsion. The Congrès Mondial Acadien, a large gathering of Acadians and Cajuns held every five years since 1994, is another example of continued unity.
Sociologists Jacques Henry and Carl L. Bankston III have maintained that the preservation of Cajun ethnic identity is a result of the social class of Cajuns. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, "Cajuns" came to be identified as the French-speaking rural people of Southwestern Louisiana. Over the course of the twentieth century, the descendants of these rural people became the working class of their region. This change in the social and economic circumstances of families in Southwestern Louisiana created nostalgia for an idealized version of the past. Henry and Bankston point out that "Cajun", which was formerly considered an insulting term, became a term of pride among Louisianans by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Geography had a strong correlation to Cajun lifestyles. The Cajuns who settled along bayous and wetlands of the Atchafalaya Basin adapted a water-based lifestyle that included fishing, hunting, and trapping. The Cajuns who settled in the prairies of southwest Louisiana found the land more suited to raising cattle, farming rice and sugar cane, and other agricultural pursuits.
Most Cajuns originated in Acadiana, where their descendants are still predominant. Cajun populations today are found also in the area southwest of New Orleans and scattered in areas adjacent to the French Louisiana region, such as to the north in Alexandria, Louisiana. Over the years, many Cajuns and Creoles also migrated to the Beaumont and Port Arthur area of Southeast Texas, in especially large numbers as they followed oil-related jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, when oil companies moved jobs from Louisiana to Texas. However, the city of Lafayette is referred to as "The Heart of Acadiana" because of its location, and it is a major center of Cajun-Creole culture.
Cajun music is evolved from its roots in the music of the French-speaking Catholics of Canada. In earlier years the fiddle was the predominant instrument, but gradually the accordion has come to share the limelight.
According to an expression of the region, Cajuns live to eat, not eat to live. Outside Louisiana the distinctions between Cajun and Louisiana Creole cuisine have been blurred. However, Creole dishes tend to be more sophisticated continental cuisine using local produce and seafood. Cajun food is rural, more seasoned, sometimes spicy, and tends to be more hearty. Many well-known Cajun dishes originally were centered on wild game, rice and other local ingredients.
Since most Cajuns were farmers and not especially wealthy, they were known for not wasting any part of a butchered animal. Cracklins are a popular snack made by frying pork skins and boudin is created from the ground-up leftover parts of a hog after the best meat is taken, which is mixed with cooked rice. It is usually formed into a sausage but can also be rolled in a ball and deep fried.
Recent documentation has been made of Cajun English, a French-influenced dialect of English spoken by Cajuns, either as a second language, in the case of the older members of the community, or as a first language by younger Cajuns.
Cajuns are predominantly Roman Catholic. However, Protestant and Evangelical Christian denominations have made inroads among Cajuns, but not without controversy — many Cajuns will shun family members if they convert to any form of Protestantism because of the extreme persecution the Cajuns were subjected to by Protestants during the Great Expulsion of 1755, and throughout their history for maintaining their Catholicism.
The 1992 cookbook, Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic and Can You Make a Roux by Cajun Chef Marcelle Bienvenue outlines long-standing beliefs that Cajun identity was rooted in community, cuisine, and very specifically, devout Roman Catholicism. Traditional Catholic religious observances such as Mardi Gras, Lent, and Holy Week are integral to many Cajun communities.
Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday" (also known as Shrove Tuesday), is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period of fasting and reflection in preparation for Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras was historically a time to use up the foods that were not to be used during Lent, including fat, eggs, and meat.
Mardi Gras celebrations in rural Acadiana are distinct from the more widely known celebrations in New Orleans and other metropolitan areas. One tradition is the wearing of a capuchon, which is a cone-shaped ceremonial hat. Another distinct feature of Cajun celebration centers on the courir (translated: to run). A group of people, usually on horseback, will approach a farmhouse and ask for something for the community gumbo pot. Often, the farmer or his wife will allow the riders to have a chicken, if they can catch it. The group then puts on a show, comically attempting to catch the chicken set out in a large open area. Songs are sung, jokes are told, and skits are acted out. When and if the chicken is caught, it is added to the pot at the end of the day. The "Courir de Mardi Gras" held in the small town of Mamou has become well known. This tradition has much in common with the observance of La Chandeleur, or Candlemas (February 2), by Acadians in Nova Scotia.
On Pâques (French for Easter), a traditional Cajun game was played called pâquer, or pâque-pâque. Contestants selected hard-boiled eggs, paired off, and tapped the eggs together — the player whose egg did not crack was declared the winner. Today Easter is still celebrated by Cajuns with the traditional game of 'paque', but is now also celebrated in the same fashion as Christians throughout the United States with candy-filled baskets "Easter bunny" stories, dyed eggs, and egg hunts.
One folk custom is belief in a traiteur, or Cajun healer, whose primary method of treatment involves the laying on of hands and of prayers. An important part of Cajun folk religion, the traiteur is a faith healer who combines Catholic prayer and medicinal remedies to treat a variety of ailments, including earaches, toothaches, warts, tumors, angina, and bleeding. Another is in the Rougarou, a version of a Loup Garou (French for werewolf), that will hunt down and kill Catholics that do not follow the rules of Lent. In some Cajun communities the Loup Garou of legend have taken on an almost protective role. Children are warned that Loup Garou can read souls, and that they only hunt and kill evil men and unbehaved horses.
Cajuns, along with other Cajun Country residents, have a reputation for a joie de vivre (French for "hearty enjoyment of life"), in which hard work is appreciated as much as "passing a good time."
In the culture, a coup de main (French for "to give a hand") is an occasion when the community gathers in order to assist one of their members with time-consuming or arduous tasks. Examples might include a barn raising, harvests, or assistance for the elderly or sick.
Laissez les bon temps rouler is a cliché phrase of the local culture, which means "let the good times roll." Nearly every village, town and city of any size has a yearly festival, celebrating an important part of the local economy. The majority of Cajun festivals include a fais do-do ("go to sleep" in French) or street dance, usually to a live local band. Crowds at these festivals can range from a few hundred to more than 100,000.
Other festivals outside of Louisiana