Les Chasseurs de Cocodries et les Trois «Gs»
(Swamp People and the Three "Gs")
We have to face up to the facts. After many years of trying to break the stereotype that all residents of Acadiana live in the Atchafalaya Basin, which we only get around by boat, and that after a hard day’s work, we like nothing better than to “Laisser les Bons Temps Rouler,” the huge success of Swamp People on the History Channel shows us that in spite of everything, it is an integral part of our culture. “Chase away the natural, and it will come galloping back” wrote the 18th-century French playwright Destouches.
Following the adventures of Troy Landry, his son and their colleagues as they try to fill their quota of alligators – or “cocodrie,” as we call them, even if they are not crocodiles but good and well alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) – in the resplendent beauty of America’s largest watershed reminds me of what I call the three G’s of our cultural identity: genealogy, geography and grammar.
First, genealogy – meaning family. Risking one’s life capturing these 10- to 13-foot-long, more than 700 pound prehistoric beasts with little more than a pirogue, some string and a sharpshooter requires a trust and a familiarity that only family ties can establish. In each episode, we notice the importance family holds for these hunters, whether they are Cajun or not. One false move, and you are no longer at the top of the food chain. Our well-known refrain “Who’s your daddy?” – an obligatory question whenever you meet someone new – affirms the importance of being able to place someone in relationship to his family. Besides, it is not rare that this question leads to a conversation that can last hours and travel across centuries. It is with alarming frequency that after only a few generations, one finds family relationships between perfect strangers.
Next, geography, meaning the environment. The notion of terroir, common in France and difficult to translate elsewhere, is at the heart of our identity in Louisiana. Just as one can only make champagne with grapes grown in a legally defined area, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone who is not originally from the bayou could possibly do what these alligator hunters do. I would go so far as to say that Troy, Junior, R.J. and the others belong to the land and not the other way around in spite of their deeds. By the same token, people born and raised in Louisiana usually have a hard time living anywhere else. Often it is only thanks to massive doses of “imported” foodstuffs that an expatriate’s exile is bearable.
Finally, grammar, meaning language. Several years ago, the Louisiana Legislature took up the question of defining what it meant to be “Cajun.” As you can imagine, they had a lot of trouble drawing the line between what is Cajun and what is not. Family ties are important – but to what families? Acadian, French, German, Spanish? How to tell if someone is a Cajun? There is no DNA test. When someone posed the question to one of the legislators sponsoring the bill, his facetious answer revealed a lot of truth: “Mais, juss lissen to me talk!” Indeed, even before you see the loyalty to his family and appreciate his love of the basin, you only have to listen to Troy Landry talk to know he is Cajun. For that matter, his war cry “Choot ‘em! Choot ‘em!” is famous around the country. Whether it is French, English or a combination of the two, we have a unique way of reinventing language.
In spite of the fears many Louisianians expressed when we learned of a TV show about alligator hunters, fears that were stoked by the image of a young toothless man pronouncing the “C-word” in the very first minutes, many of my compatriots –myself included – have gotten used to the idea that you can chase away the natural but our true nature of fidelity to our families, the land and our language will return.