Acadian, Cajun Or Creole?


There is a difference!

If you are a native of south Louisiana, you are most likely Acadian or “cajun” to some degree. Even though often regarded as “creoles”, there is a difference in the hertiage between the two people.

Acadians are descendants of those French immigrants who settled in what are today the Maritime Provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. In 1632, three-hundred French settlers arrived in Acadia to carve out frontier homes near the community of Port Royal. The Acadian pioneers were characterized by individualism, adaptability, pragmatism, industriousness, egalitarian principles, and an ability to pull together when threatened. They also possessed extended families and distinctive language and speech patterns. The Acadians were typically non-materialistic, seeking only economic independence and a decent standard of living through an agrarian way of life. Some ethnic diversity did exist among the Acadians as time went by to include English, Scottish, Irish, Spanish, Basque, and even American Indians. Those of French origin, however, dominated the cultural landscape, and as intermarriage occurred the Acadian population quickly became homogenized.

In 1710, Acadia was passed from France to England as a prize of war and for the next forty-five years the Acadians lived in relative peace under British administration. But in 1755 came the expulsion known as Le Grand Derangement (the Great Disturbance). These people were scattered to nearby territories , New England, England and France. Contrary to popular belief, they were not “sent” to Louisiana; Louisiana was a French colony to where many Acadians turned to for resettlement due to it’s less hostile environment. Today, it is estimated that there are between 700,000 and 1,500,000 Acadians worldwide. In the 1990 US census about 520,000 people in Louisiana claimed either Acadian or French-Canadia heritage.

Dictionaries generally define Cajuns as “a Louisianian who descends from French-speaking Acadians”. However, that is not totally accurate. Because of circumstances, an Acadian is not a Cajun; however, cajuns are in-part descendants of Acadians! The word “cajun” is itself a dialectal derivation of Acadia. But Louisiana Cajuns are more homogenous than that due to the early mixture of several ethnic groups such as Spanish, German, French Creole, Anglo-American as well as the native Indians. Thus this cross-cultural pollination of several ethnic groups resulted into a single new ethnic group—the Cajuns. And of course, today we have what is considered a “cultural cajun” which is someone of non-cajun origin who becomes a Cajun through immersion in Cajun culture and an accompanying, gradual process of ethnic assimilation. Therefore, being Cajun is being part of a culture, developed by living and working in close proximity, shut off from the rest of the world for many years. So if you “walk like a Cajun, talk like a Cajun, think like a Cajun and look like a Cajun, then - Mon Cher” you’re a Cajun!

Creoles were originally descendants of early French and Spanish settlers in the New World. The term “creole” became very popular in the colony. It was used to apply to people and things native to the colony. The word comes from the Spanish “criollo…a child born in the colony”. The term first applied to natives of the West Indies, Central and South America, and the Gulf States region, but eventually became synonymous with the race of people found in Louisiana.

In many places, Cajuns are referred to as “CoonAsses”, even by Cajuns themselves! In fact, bumper stickers adorn many a pickup truck or automobile bumpers in south Louisiana with slogans such as Coonass and Proud! There are countless explanations of how and where the word came from. Reference was given to the word in an article written by Jim Bradshaw in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser to which he suggested that it came from the Caribbee Indian word cunaso which means someone who lives simply, on and with the land. Some even suggest it came about because of the coonskin caps worn by Andrew Jackson’s soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans. These explanations are probably unlikely. And rest assured, despite what some folks might think, the term has nothing to do with a raccoon’s anatomy either!

The most logical explanation goes back to the time of the Acadian Expulsion in 1755. After the expulsion, more than 3000 Acadians sought refuge in France. French administrators had promised the displaced Acadians that they would be compensated and resettled on farms comparable to what they were forced to relinquish in Acadia. Several blundering attemps were made to resettle the Acadians on barren lands; however, all failed. The Acadians having been farmers most of their lives, were unwilling to abandon the independence they were accustomed to and adapt to France’s feudal system. Unable to compete in the skilled urban job market, they were compelled to live in the French seaports on a meager Royal dole. The native Frenchmen, already over-burdened with taxes, resented the exiles they were forced to support. Soon the Acadians were labeled “conasse”, a derogatory French slang word used to humiliate, embarrass or degrade another. The word has been defined as several different meanings such as “a prostitute who has not had her regular health inspection; a stupid man or woman; a man who does stupid things”. The French now use the word for more broadly meaning “a grossly stupid person”.

As Louisiana’s Cajun soldiers went to war in the first and second World War to help liberate France, the Frenchmen renewed the name calling. These Cajun soldiers were used as interpreters for the French, but since most of these men spoke a French that was not of the same quality of the French, Belgian, and Canadian interpreters, they labeled these people conasses. Soon the Louisiana Cajun in the heat of an arguement or to make a point would say something like How should I know, I’m nothing but a dumb conass! The word and label stuck and was brought back to the states by the Americans as a harmless nickname.

Despite efforts by Cajun activists like James Domengeaux and Warren Perrin to stamp out the term’s use, the name continues to circulate in South Louisiana and beyond. A large portion of the Cajun population does not know why they were given that name and generally tend to accept it; however, acceptability varies according to circumstances depending on who says it and with what intention it was said! To the informed Cajun, the term is considered a demeaning, racial slur like other racist words used against other people and some have been known to correct well-meaning outsiders who use the epithet and “enlighten” those who use it with less than well-meaning intentions!