Lappas on Mathis-Moser and Bischof, 'Acadians and Cajuns: The Politics and Culture of French Minorities in North America (Acadiens et Cajuns: Politique et culture de minorites francophones en Amerique du Nord)'

Ursula Mathis-Moser, Günter Bischof, eds.
Thomas J. Lappas

Ursula Mathis-Moser, Günter Bischof, eds. Acadians and Cajuns: The Politics and Culture of French Minorities in North America (Acadiens et Cajuns: Politique et culture de minorites francophones en Amerique du Nord). Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press, 2009. 203 pp. EUR 19.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-902571-93-9.

Reviewed by Thomas J. Lappas (Nazareth College of Rochester) Published on H-French-Colonial (February, 2011) Commissioned by Jyoti Mohan

Interdisciplinary Views on Acadian and Cajun History

Many historians are familiar with “The Grand Derangement,” the appellation given to the expulsion of the French Acadians by the English conquerors of Maritime Canada in 1755.  Most, know, too that the scattering of these refugees throughout the rest of the North American colonies helped to flavor many of the European settlements there, especially in Louisiana.  Yet, many historians have been guilty of oversimplifying this migration story, assuming too clear and uncomplicated a relationship between the southern Cadiens or Cajuns and their Acadian cousins who remained in the Canadian homeland.  To some extent, these oversimplifications exist because of the methodological challenges in extracting linguistic markers from francophones in Louisiana that are from Acadia and those that came from non-Acadian francophones who may have influenced the newcomers’ French language.  Perhaps the murkiness is due to historians’ failures to consider the differences between Acadian literature in Canadian and Cajun literature in the U.S. South.  Perhaps then, an interdisciplinary collection of scholarship that unpacks the complicated relationship between maritime Acadia and the descendents of the diaspora would be a welcome addition to general scholars of French colonial history.  

Such an interdisciplinary approach is offered in Acadians and Cajuns: The Politics and Culture of French Minorities in North America, which is a collection of essays intended to bring some clarity to the complicated outcome of the Derangement.  The result of the partnership between The Canadian Studies Centre at the University of Innsbruck and CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans, a conference held in early September 2007 in Innsbruck, Austria, set out to challenge “some of the old mythologies about Cajuns and Acadians” (p. 7).  The published papers enclosed in the volume are methodologically diverse and offer many nuanced insights into the richness of the Acadian and Cajun lives in North America.  The organization of the work’s sections highlights this methodological diversity.  These sections include “History and Politics,” “Language and Literature,” and “Popular Culture: Cuisine and Music.”  Aside from the editors’ introduction, which is in both English and French, the entries are in either English or French: seven in English, four in French.  Each entry is preceded by an adequate summary in the other language, making the overall content accessible to those not literate in both languages.

As with all collections of essays, each author’s work has its own purpose, method, and strengths and this deserves its own treatment.  However, if one were able to distill a thesis from the varied pieces from the edition it might be that while the memory of an Acadian origin has been ever present in the minds of many Louisianans of some French ancestry, their genetic, linguistic, and cultural origins are more complex than they imagined and perhaps less “Acadian” than they thought.  While many in the American South have clung to their Acadian past, the people who live in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada lived their own histories, developed their own political cultures, music, and literature.  Despite the different trajectories of these cultural cousins, the various reunions of the descendents of 1755 have produced a marvelously rich understanding of the Acadian-Cadien-Cajun world, one which is spatially and temporally enormous. 

In Maurice Basque’s “Acadiens, Cadiens et Cajuns: identités communes ou distinctes?” we receive a review of recent literature that provides clearer definitions of the three terms often used interchangeably and inaccurately to describe French-speaking inhabitants of Atlantic Canada and those Anglophones and Francophones in Louisiana who claim descent from there.  While there was a distinct Acadian identity before and immediately after the events of 1755 in Atlantic Canada, those who moved to Louisiana became “Cadiens,” that is, the Acadians who settled in Louisiana but maintained their French language.  This population became “Cajuns” as they became primarily Anglophone.  Yet, from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, the waters of Acadian identity in Maritime Canada became muddied as people moved into Nova Scotia and in and around New Brunswick and began to identify themselves as Acadians, despite not having roots in the region prior to 1755.  Sociologists propose two major theses: One holds that a “virtual Acadia” exists, extending from Canada down to Louisiana and contains all of those who are genealogically related to the original Acadian population of 1755.  A second thesis suggests that the population tied to the geographic place of Acadia in Atlantic Canada and who continue to live in a French-speaking culture form the core of Acadia today.  Of course, in such a construction, Louisianans are largely excluded.  Armed with an introduction to the competing paradigms surrounding each of these essential words, the reader is able to navigate further details of the complex history of Acadians and Cajuns.

Ursula Lehmkuhl, in “Acadia: A History of Cultural Encounter and Cultural Transfer,” helps to explain how, among historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, confusion emerged surrounding definitions of “Acadia” and “Acadians.”  Acadia has been, as she explains, both “homeland and diaspora,” a place and a people, along the same lines as the place and people signified by the term “Basque.”  What follows is, first, a thorough but efficient narrative history of the major periods in Acadian history, focusing primarily on the Canadian Maritime region.  These periods, divided into the broad pre- and post-deportation eras, include: “Indian-Acadian Cohabitation (1604-1713)”; “The Thirty Years Peace (1713-1748)”; “‘Le Grand Derangement’ (1755-1762)”; “The Dynamism of ‘l’Acadie du Silence’ (1758-1864)”; “The Acadian Renaissance (1864-1884)”; and “The Consolidation of an Acadian National Identity (1880-1914).”  The remainder of her piece is a call to engage in “transfer history” rather than in the traditional narrative of adaptation and/or resistance.  She defines her approach as one which “tries to elucidate which elements of the respective ‘extraneous culture’ are rejected and which are included or assimilated by way of a productive process of appropriation” (p. 51). 

If scholars are looking for a way to explain how and why non-Cajun Americans and Cajuns alike began to think they knew what it meant to be Acadian, only to be mistaken without knowing it, then they might look to W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s insightful piece: “Memory and Acadian Identity, 1920-1960: Susan Evangeline Walker Anding, Dudley LeBlanc, Louise Oliver, or the Pursuit of Authenticity.”  Brundage ably shows that commercial hucksters successfully sold an image of authentic Acadian-ness during the mid-twentieth century.  While Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” (1847) sparked nostalgia for the Acadian homeland, the poet was outdone in tacky commercialism by Anding, someone with no Acadian ancestry but who, nonetheless, became a promoter of traditional Acadian costumes, creating a mannequin exhibit at the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition, a version of which was later adopted by a New York City department store.  Le Blanc staged a “pilgrimage” from Louisiana to Canada and wrote several accounts of the Acadian expulsion story, all of which tended to essentialize the Acadians in rustic terms.  Stuck in the amber, the twentieth century-descendents (or supposed descendents) of the diaspora were supposed to relish these rustic traits.  Oliver was less “huckesterish” but nonetheless sought to discourage innovation in Acadian customs.  This “pursuit of authenticity” thus became one of the key elements of their identity construction. 

Charles D. Hadley’s “Cajun Politics in Louisiana: Laissez les bons temps rouler” traces the transformation of Louisiana’s demographic makeup from one dominated by Franco-Lousianans (whether of Acadian ancestry or not) to one dominated by Anglo-Louisianans after 1840.  While this changed the electorate, Cajuns were still represented in the governorship and in the U.S. Senate.  After the Civil War, things changed in Louisiana, especially after the 1879 constitution, which required that English be taught in public schools.  Despite the overwhelming changes in demographics in the state, people of Cajun descent continued to be present in all levels of government.  While the author notes that a few late-twentieth-century Democrats shifted to the Republican Party, the broader national shifts in U.S. politics, especially throughout the South, are missing from the piece.

The opening piece of the section on language and literature, Thomas A. Klingler’s “How Much Acadian is There in Cajun?,” ties together many of the overarching themes of the conference.  Positively placing his work alongside Herménégilde Chiasson’s and Brundage’s pieces, he highlights that much of the modern Cajun culture in Louisiana makes too much of their Acadian origins.  Using linguistic evidence, Klinger demonstrates that the French community in Louisiana before the Acadians’ arrival left more of a mark on the spoken French of Louisianans.  Using similar methods, Ingrid Neumann-Holzschuh, in “La diaspora acadienne dans une perspective linguistique,” examines the degree of change that has occurred between modern Acadian French in Atlantic Canada and that spoken in Louisiana. 

In Raoul Boudreau’s “Presence/absence de la Louisiane en literature acadienne contemporaine,” the author examines the recent literature coming from the Maritimes of Canada, noting a broad cultural rift between the Canadians and their cousins from Louisiana.  Notably, the French language itself, and debates about its preservation in public schools and other arenas, have been nearly absent in recent Louisiana history.  Themes of the diaspora are less prominent than one might expect, too, in Canadian literature.  Instead, authors from Louisiana, often working with Quebecois publishers, seem not to work very much with Acadian authors or publishers.  The two regions’ authors seem to have a very different conception of history and geography in their writings.  Acadian authors such as Antonine Maillet and Gerald Leblanc tend to portray Louisianans as the bearers of Acadian tradition, stuck in the past to an extent.  For French authors and critics working on the Continent, the focus tends to be on Louisiana, despite a great deal of loss in the French language.  Attempts by New Brunswick scholars to differentiate themselves from Quebec are often lost on the French, who lump the two together as Quebecois

François Paré’s “Michel Roy’s Lost Acadia and the Continental Paradigm” provides a literary analysis of two themes in Acadian literature.  Roy expressed a pessimistic view of Acadian identity, which was preserved only in tiny towns tucked along the coast.  The other Acadian communities seemed defined by their losses rather than by preservation or dynamic change and adaptation.  More recent Acadian writers, however, express a view of Acadian identity as being continent-wide, stretching from New Brunswick through many American communities and down to New Orleans.  The tensions between loss and dynamic survival and growth reflect both elements of Acadian identity (and many minority identities). 

With respect to the essays devoted to cuisine and culture, in the most mouthwatering piece of the bunch, John Laudun’s “Gumbo This: The State of a Dish,” we learn of the incredible complexity of the methods of making this supposedly essential Cajun dish.  The problem is that rather than there being essential similarities among Cajuns across regions, there is greater similarity in cooking methods and ingredients among people living in closer geographic proximity to one another, regardless of whether they are Cajuns or Creoles.

Jeanette Gallant, in “The Changing Face of the Acadian Folk Song,” explains that folks songs, which have moved from songs played and sung in largely social settings, to being institutionalized and commercialized, have come to be seen as emblems of Acadian identity by outsiders.  However, within Acadian societies, the folks songs’ cultural powers have ebbed and flowed, oftentimes not reflecting the real lives of the people they supposedly represent.  Gallant posits three major stages of folk song development.  The first, the “clerico-nationalist” phase, from the 1880s to the 1960s was characterized by the collecting impulses of Catholic priests who collected, conducted, and preserved songs that seemed to promote social cohesion and activism.  The “neo-nationalist” phase, from the 1960s to the 1980s, reflected the decline in ecclesiastical power in New Brunswick that began in the 1960s.  Acadian folkloric music took an explicitly anti-Anglophone tone, and its themes seemed to resemble those of Louisianans who emphasized the diaspora in their music.  In the present, Acadian music takes many different forms, with only a few artists attempting to reproduce earlier folk songs in traditional forms.  “Folks song is not transmitted successfully through educational institutions or by the entertainment industry because, as a symbol of the past, it does not resonate with Acadia’s modern sense of ethnicity or nationhood in today’s context” (p. 179).

In “La chanson traditionelle dans l’Acadie contemporaine,” Ronald Labelle poses the question, why can’t a people with such a rich musical culture appreciate that culture today?  The answer lies in a long period of acculturation in the nineteenth century and an increasing penchant for country and western music in the twentieth.  Even the 1970s rock band 1755 was a fusion of some Acadian folk themes with bluegrass banjo, a country guitar, and an overall rock feel.  In a slightly different interpretation than Gallant’s, Labelle suggests that the “world music” scene today is quite interested in Acadian folk music (or its derivatives).

One notable absence in this volume is the invisibility of the First Nations of Acadia to this discussion of Acadian identities.  With a few exceptions, the importance of Mi’kmaqs to early French survival is absent.  Ursula Mathis-Moser and Günter Bischof even refer to Bernard Bailyn’s history as being “appropriately called ‘the peopling of America.’”  This is unfortunate in a book devoted to a group of people who were linked to and affected by the aboriginal Mik’maq people who inhabited the Maritime Provinces at the time of their supposed “peopling” (p. 7).  Aside from this important omission, the volume highlights some future paths of research in Acadian and Cajun identities and history and help us understand how diasporic communities develop and change over time. 

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Citation: Thomas J. Lappas. Review of Mathis-Moser, Ursula; Bischof, Günter, eds., Acadians and Cajuns: The Politics and Culture of French Minorities in North America (Acadiens et Cajuns: Politique et culture de minorites francophones en Amerique du Nord). H-French-Colonial, H-Net Reviews. February, 2011. URL:

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