World War II sent the Acadians of south Louisiana out into the world, and their world was changed forever by the experience. But World War I apparently did not have that same effect.
Minnie Kelley, a geographer at what was then Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now UL Lafayette) studied the Cajun culture midway between the wars and reported her findings in 1934 in the Journal of Geography. The portrait she gives is of a closeknit, Frenchspeaking, agricultural area that has all but disappeared today.
"Because of wide swamps, deep rivers, innumerable bayous, and remoteness from the American frontier of settlement, these remnants of exiles were practically isolated from outside influences. This isolation ... intensified the natural character of the Acadians and tended to develop a homogeneous people," she writes.
"When the [French and Spanish] Creoles settled in South Louisiana, they did not mix with the Acadians, due to the social and cultural abyss separating them. The proud, indolent, pleasureloving Creole refused intermarriage with his less fortunate kin. When the American element moved into this region, there was no intermingling of these newcomers with the Acadians. The Americans had nothing in common with the simple peasantry of the Acadian settlement."
She says the Cajuns' desire to be left alone and the apparent willingness of others to do so "preserved the purity of the Acadian blood in south Louisiana to a surprising extent. So complete has been the isolation of these people that during the [first] World War, the companies of Acadian recruits in the draft army had to be drilled by Frenchspeaking officers."
Sometime after the war, according to the report, Leon Vallas of Lyon, France, was hired by the French Government "to keep alive an interest in the French language in America." He said the people of southwest Louisiana, because of their isolation, had "retained a purity of accent surpassing that of the true Parisian."
However, because of their lack of schooling and of contact with people who had gone to school, "the Acadian ... evolved a patois that cannot be readily understood by native Frenchmen," because of Anglicisms and localisms that crept into the Cajun vocabulary, "giving rise to an interesting and picturesque dialect."
Kelley describes the Acadians of south Louisiana as a "virile, homeloving people" who "glory in large families of thirteen and fourteen children."She found one Cajun family in Vermilion Parish with 22 living children.
Such large families were responsible for a growing Acadian population. According to Kelley's data, there were 4,000 Acadians in Louisiana in 1804, 30,000 in 1860, and 50,000 in 1924, most of whom, she said, were "indisposed to change."
"The Tax Commission Report of 1930 indicated more than 900 buggies in a single parish of Lafayette," Kelley said. "These buggies make driving at night in automobiles a hazardous undertaking in spite of the flickering light of a lantern attached to the vehicle.
"Although people have come from the north, the east, and from foreign countries bringing with them different ideas, customs and language, the region in south Louisiana in the vicinity of Bayou Teche, where the Acadians first settled, has remained for nearly two centuries distinctly French," she concluded.
Then came World War II and the GI Bill and the radio and television, and an influx of oilmen, all of which helped to pierce the isolation of Cajuns communities and to introduce new ways and ideas into their culture.
The result is that the colorful Cajun patois is all but dead, kids think the stuff that comes from Popeye's is Cajun cooking and a people who, even if they were still "indisposed to change." could do little about it all.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.