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The Cajun People's Celtic Roots

a group of Cajuns watching the Mardi Gra parade

The way I put it together
as an amateur historian,
the Cajun people can trace their roots
all the way back to the Celts
of western Europe.

They had endured the advances of Julius Caesar during the first century AD, when Rome redefined Gaul (their name for the land we now know as France). The Celts of the north, caught between the Romans and the germanic tribes farther north, became concentrated westward into an isolated granite peninsula they called Armorica ("land by the sea")—  from which I would think we got our own eventual name, America. This region came also to be known as Bretagne, Lesser Britain, which lay across the channel from Greater Britain. The Angles, Picts and Saxons had already invaded Britain and literally marginalized the Celtic tribes that had long been settled there, pushing them out across the channel into Armorica as well as back into the farther reaches of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

We may think of the Celts of Armorica as simple subsistence farmers and fishers, who may not have been especially ambitious but were instead content to cope in an intimate participation with the harsh land and the unforgiving sea. We may also be tempted to think of them as illiterate, with a lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to the more intellectual pursuits of Rome, but theirs was an oral tradition that flourished within a tightly-knit community; their culture was especially identifiable by their cuisine and their music, which were not as easily recorded as the writings of classic Rome and Greece. They clearly were not an aggressive folk, not conquerors and invaders, but resisters who nevertheless stubbornly, even fiercely clung to and maintained their distinctive cultural heritage in the face of a foreign occupation, even as their language over time became French, and as they gradually submitted to the remote political rule of a latinate French nobility.

These were the fishers and farmers who eventually recognized an opportunity in the discovery of a New World across the sea, and traveled there to settle in Acadie, a region in New France, just north of New England, named for the legendary paradise Arcadia. The name "Cajun" is in fact a contraction for "Acadian". Their ethnic identity continued to gather and evolve in Acadie throughout the Seventeenth Century, joined by occasional Scot, Irish and Basque adventurers that reinvigorated and reemphasized their ancient Celtic heritage. The northern waterways they settled were not unlike the European lands from which they had emigrated, and they quickly built a self-sufficient fishing and farming society that was remarkable for its cohesion and successful enterprise; but remote European politics were not done with them.

A visitor wrote of them in 1790: "The Acadians are the most innocent and virtuous people whom I have ever known or heard tell of in any history. They live in a state of perfect equality, without distinction of rank in society... Ignorant of the luxuries and even of the conveniences of life, they are content with a simple mode of life, which they easily derive from the cultivation of their lands. Very little ambition or avarice was seen among them; they helped each other's wants with benevolent liberality; they required no interest for loans of money or other property. They were humane and hospitable to strangers, and very liberal to those who embraced their religion." Much of this easily describes the people that I met in Southern Louisiana.

As Britain and France developed into dominant political forces that competed—  sometimes violently—  for control of western Europe, diplomacy became the uncomfortable venue of choice for working things out between London and Paris. Finally, in 1713 France gave Britain control of Acadie under the Treaty of Utrecht, and the Acadians were suddenly—  without having been consulted about it—  British subjects, and no longer French.

A generation later, at the outset of the French and Indian War, Britain demanded that the Acadians swear allegiance against France, which they refused to do. In a brutal and infamous act of despotism the British burned down their homes, confiscated their land, and scattered the people upon the high seas with no particular destination provided them. This diaspora—  not unlike the Jewish exile centuries before—  came to be known as their Grand Dérangement, and worked to further define the Acadians as a people, despite the loss of their home and land.

In a confused history of shifting international ownership Louisiana was Spanish at that time, although the French had long before explored and colonized the region, and it was at Spain's invitation that the Acadians eventually gathered back together and settled there in 1784 after many years of a cruel dispersion upon the high seas. Longfellow's immensely popular romantic poem "Evangeline" was loosely based upon the tragedy of loved ones becoming separated during this time.

Some of them—  the upwardly mobilized, so-called "genteel Acadians"—  were absorbed into the French settlements along the Mississippi. However, most of them, it seems, were suspicious of the French and avoided them, perhaps remembering their uneasy relationship centuries before in Armorica, more likely remembering having been sold out by the Treaty of Utrecht. Certainly they were uncomfortable with how they were met when they attempted to return to France after the Grand Dérangement.

At any rate, the majority of these Acadians moved south into the bayous and west of the Atchafalaya upon the plains, and settled in small villages where they patiently tended the values of their heritage, built a new relationship with the land, and came to be called Cajuns. It is interesting to see the ways in which they have continued to grow as a people without changing their fundamental values, accepting new ideas that fit into their character but rejecting anything that would contradict their hard-won values.

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