The True Characteristics of the Cajun People

About 20 years ago, on the day I turned 40, I was musing over the idea of writing my first book.

Having been the editor of Acadiana Profile, the magazine of the Cajun Country, for quite a number of years, I figured I might have something worthwhile to say about the land and culture of the Cajun people, my people. (By the way, I’m from French stock on my father’s side and French-Acadian, or Cajun, lineage on my mother’s side, the Hebert side.)

I thought about writing the book throughout the day, and before I went to bed that night, I decided to sit down and draft at least the first sentence of the first chapter. It went like this: “Ever since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem Evangeline back in the 1800s, writers have had a tendency to play it fast and loose with the facts about the French-Acadian people, known today as Cajuns.”

I titled the book The Truth About the Cajuns, intending to dispel the myths and stereotypes that many had attached to the Cajun people. I wanted to try to set the record straight regarding the true characteristics of the Cajuns.

The Hollywood movie crowd had helped to create an image of the Cajuns as simple-minded swamp dwellers whose lives revolve around eating, drinking and dancing. They depicted us as dull, unambitious people who aspire to nothing more than the Saturday night dance and another can of beer.

Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth!

So, in an effort to defend the good name of the Cajuns, I tried to identify the true characteristics of our people.

Toward this end, I sought out experts in the fields of sociology and Louisiana history. These included Glenn Conrad, director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at USL, and Carl Brasseaux, the assistant director of the center. (Carl is now the director, and Glenn has gone on to his great reward.)

They suggested a handful of common characteristics, being very careful to point out that although the majority of Cajuns may share these traits, it cannot be said that all Cajuns do. These characteristics include:

Strong ties with family and environment: Cajun family members tend to remain in the same locale year after year, generation after generation. Consequently, we are able to draw on the strength of the family in dealing with the problems of everyday life.

A spiritual outlook: We who are fortunate enough to be living in the Cajun culture tend to be less materialistic than the average American. “I think Cajuns conceive of themselves as part of a metaphysical world … that there is more to life than just material things,” Brasseaux explained.

Industrious and hardworking: This dates back not only to their ancestors’ days as farmers, trappers and fishermen in Nova Scotia but also to their ancestors’ ancestors’ days as members of the working class of France.

Divergent attitudes toward outsiders: The Cajuns’ attitudes toward outsiders vary from seemingly unconditional acceptance and friendliness on the one hand to extreme suspicion and outright rejection on the other –– depending on what part of the region is involved. “Like any other ethnic group, the Cajuns will not let themselves be taken over by outsiders,” said Edward Joubert of the USL Sociology Department.

Joie de vivre (Joy of life): This is perhaps the most subtle and misunderstood characteristic attributed to the Cajun people. It is a very subjective trait. Joie de vivre is more of a disposition, a way of looking at things. It is the ability to enjoy life, to appreciate and even relish the good things life has to offer. It is the capacity to interpret things in a positive manner, to find the good in things. It’s a condition of the mind and heart. A person who has joie de vivre does more than just exist; he rejoices over his lot in life, no matter how modest.

To learn more of The Truth About the Cajuns, you may want to order the book online, www.acadianhouse.com.

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