The changing of a culture: Historians say Cajun traditions evolving, not dying

A Vermilionville worker shares a laugh with visitors, as they trade stories of traditions and customs of their Cajun culture.
Photo by Aaron Gonsoulin

Aaron Gonsoulin

For more than 250 years, the history and traditions of Cajun culture has been a vital part of south Louisiana, but according to historians the past has evolved, changing the present.  

Louisiana historian Shane Bernard, Ph.D., said he doesn’t think Cajun culture is dying, but rather, evolving. 

“No, I do not think they are dying, but I do think they are changing,” Bernard said. “Some purists no doubt would see these changes as tantamount to the culture dying, but no culture in the history of humankind has ever been static.”

Bernard said he sees a change where others might see the demise of Cajun culture.

“Those who tend to see the culture in demise tend to stress the ascendancy of the French language as a means of everyday communication, and yet even as fewer and fewer self-identified Cajuns speak French, more and more self-identified Cajuns seem to embrace their heritage and express ethnic pride.” 

According to 64 Parishes, Cajuns are the descendants of Acadian exiles from the Maritime provinces of Canada—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—who migrated to southern Louisiana.

Like Bernard, Anne Mahoney Fontenot, curator at the Vermilionville, believes the times and traditions are changing —not the Cajun.

“It’s changing because that’s what traditions do,” Mahoney Fontenot said. “Folklife is how we are using those same traditions now. There might be a different way to do something but it’s been passed down, and that’s folklife.”

Mahoney Fontenot said Vermilionville is a living history, aimed at keeping the traditions of Cajuns and Creoles alive.

“We do hands-on kraft, we interpret folklife as well as their history,” Mahoney Fontenot said. “Our goal is to interpret this history using those avenues of the indigenous, the Creoles and Acadian descents in the early 1800s and up to the end of the 1800s. That’s our timeline.” 

Though Vermilionville works to keep the traditions of the Cajun culture alive, Bernard said he believes there is no need to do so.

“I don’t think we Cajuns have to do anything to preserve Cajun culture,” Bernard said.  “I tend to agree with those who frown on the idea of preserving a culture, though, unlike me, they seem to stress that if a culture needs to be preserved.”

A 1990 census says that 27.20% of people in Lafayette claimed to be a Cajun during that time. But according to Mahoney Fontenot, with such a low number, she questions if there is a fear those traditions and culture of Cajuns will die out. 

“Is there a fear it will die?,” Mahoney Fontenot said, adding,  “I think the only thing is a fear it will die out is I know those who consider themselves a Cajun fear the language dying out. 

 Mahoney Fontenot said In terms of the culture, it’s always evolving. 

But that’s what museums do, what families do, they keep those traditions alive,” Mahoney Fontenot said. 

Vermilionville curator Anne Mahoney Fontenot explains why she thinks Cajun Culture is evolving rather than dying out. 
Video by Aaron Gonsoulin

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