So what’s the difference between the terms “Creole” and “Cajun?” Louisiana historian and cultural authority Joseph Dunn sets the record straight on the Acadian exile, assimilation within the Creole population, and the late 20th century Cajun marketing machine.
Authored by Joseph Dunn
Table of Contents
Travel can be defined as relaxation, recreation, or vacation. But travel is also education, and when visiting historical sites, nothing is more important to the learning process than having an accurate historical context.
I have visited the state of Louisiana many times, and I have published several articles about travel destinations across the state. On a recent River Road plantations trip, I had the privilege of meeting Joseph Dunn, the sales, marketing, and public relations director at Laura Plantation. Over lunch, we had an enlightening discussion about the history of Louisiana Creole language, culture, and identity. My eyes were opened to truths I had previously misunderstood.
Later that afternoon, I joined Joseph for a guided tour of Laura Plantation, where I encountered Louisiana Creole history once again. But this time with a fresh and proper understanding.
When I began working on a new article entitled Louisiana Plantation Tours that Interpret the Slave Experience, I knew it was time to add Joseph to the conversation, so that readers planning travel to Louisiana can approach their itinerary destinations with an accurate schema and cultural understanding.
With Backroad Planet’s first academic article, I give you Joseph Dunn.
My approach to this article comes from my background working in the realm of Louisiana French and Creole heritage language activism. As a past Director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), the only state agency in the United States charged with overseeing the “development, utilization, and preservation” of minority languages, I was faced daily with the challenges of promoting their use in social, educational, and professional settings.
Following countless hours of reading, researching, interviewing, listening to archival audio and video recordings, and simply talking (in French and Creole) with Louisianians, old and young alike, I was finally able to articulate that the language shift from French to English had also resulted in a radical shift in identity. In sum, their relationship to their own heritage languages, culture, sense of place, and history had been reprogrammed in English from a strictly American perspective.
This is an extremely complex topic with many subtleties and nuances. It is also controversial because it challenges what we have been taught about ourselves in English for more than a century.
Le Grand Dérangement
Between 1755 and 1762, the Acadian settlers in what is now Nova Scotia (then called “Acadie”) were forcibly exiled by the British, following the British takeover of the colony during the first part of the French and Indian War. Known in French as, “Le Grand Dérangement” (“The Great Upheaval”), it is often compared to an ethnic cleansing.
Though it is difficult the know the exact number of Acadians who were deported, estimates hover between 8,000 to 10,000 men, women, and children. Many were resettled in the English colonies along the Atlantic coast; others were sent to England and France.
Louisiana had been colonized by the French in 1699 and transferred to Spain in 1762, precisely because the English had defeated the French in Canada. “La Louisiane,” which comprised the entire middle part of the North American continent, from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, was now threatened by takeover by English Protestants. The French had lost. The Spanish offered the best protection against Protestant expansion.
The first group of Acadian exiles made their way to Louisiana in 1764, to be followed over the succeeding twenty years (the last arrived in 1785) by several more. In total, just under 3,000 Acadian refugees were absorbed into the existing Louisiana French and Creole-speaking population of approximately 20,000 people that included a large number of enslaved Africans. This estimate does not include the Native American populations, for which it seems little data exists.
There is ample written and anecdotal evidence that the descendants of the Acadian exiles were assimilated into the larger Creole culture, language and identity over the succeeding generations and into the middle of the 20th century.
This does not mean, however, that Acadian or the succeeding “Cajun” identity completely disappeared or that the white Creoles and Creoles of color did not see them as the “other,” often poor, rural French speakers. The main point here is that the Acadians were part of larger Louisiana Creole whole.
Conversely, the Acadian descendants who remained isolated within their own communities often regarded the Creoles as wealthy urbanites or of the planter class. This is evident in the Louisiana French language literature of the late 19th century, notably Sidonie de la Houssaye’s “Pouponne et Balthazar,” published in 1888 or in Kate Chopin’s 1897 collection of short stories in English, “A Night in Acadie.”
Segregation and Assimilation
The emergence of a “Cajun” identity, removed from the earlier “Acadian” identity and separate and apart from “Creole,” dates mostly to the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. As Americanization and heritage language loss accelerated, the term “Creole” had become increasingly racialized. Association with Acadian ancestry connected to Canada, whether real or imagined, offered “white” people an alternative to the perception of “blackness” now associated with “Creole.”
French and Creole speakers of color and Native American descent who could neither pass nor want to pass for white would now be racially excluded from what had previously been an inclusive linguistic and cultural identity.
Cajun* would henceforth mean “white” and Creole would mean “black.”
The later designation of a 22-parish area as “Acadiana” by the Louisiana state legislature in 1971 to recognize the area’s “strong French Acadian cultural aspects” further distanced Creoles of Acadian descent from the common Louisiana Creole identity that many had previously shared with non-Acadian-identified Louisianians.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the divergence continued as the native French and Creole speakers for whom these perceived “differences” mattered little were replaced by newer generations of Louisianians who been reared and educated in English in segregated schools.
Therefore, the baseline for identity in Louisiana shifted from language and culture to race and skin color as a direct result of heritage language loss, forced assimilation into English, and Americanization.
The marketing and promotion efforts related to the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans put tremendous emphasis on the emerging “Cajun” brand, introducing the world to gombo and jambalaya, Creole dishes now remarketed as “Cajun.” Beginning in the 1980s, most everything in Louisiana that had been known since the 18th century as “Creole” . . . people, food, culture, language . . . would be rebranded “Cajun” as part of a massive campaign.
Financially, it has been wildly successful for more than 40 years. In terms of tourism and media coverage dollars alone, “Cajun” is a billion-dollar label. Despite the dollar signs, however, some would argue that the rebranding has come at great expense.
• It has divided the remaining native French and Creole speakers into opposing camps.
• It has divided the assimilated monolingual English-speaking descendants of the French and Creole speakers into opposing camps.
• It has confused locals, tourists, and academics into believing that everything about Louisiana French history, language, culture, cuisine, and music originated with the arrival of the Acadian exiles.
Despite how it may appear, this article is not meant to discount the contributions to the rich and complex history of Louisiana made by the Acadians or their Cajun-identified descendants.
The simple objective is to illustrate that we cannot credit the French language, the culture, the cuisine, and the music to a single minority ethno-racial group that arrived more than half a century following the founding of the colony.
We must begin to recognize the historical evidence and celebrate the fact that Louisiana has always been a remarkably diverse society developed over more than three centuries by many francophone and créolophone peoples, only one of which was the Acadians.
For more information on Louisiana Creole language and identity, consider Joseph Dunn’s articles: A Primer on the Evolution of Creole Identity in Louisiana and A Primer on French and Creole Heritage Language Loss in Louisiana as a Result of Contextual Erosion.
* It bears explaining that “Cajun” is an English-language deformation of the Louisiana French pronunciation “Acadien,” which over time in local vernacular French was contracted to “Cadien.” English-programmed ears hear the French ‘dien’ as ‘jun.’
Bibliography and Sources
Bernard, S.K. The Cajuns: Americanization of a People: University Press of Mississippi, 2003
de la Houssaye, S. Pouponne et Balthazar, L’Athenée Louisianais, 1888
Chopin, Kate, A Night in Acadie, 1897
Brasseaux, C.A. French, Cajun, Creole, Houma: A Primer on Francophone Louisiana: LSU Press, 2005
Brasseaux, C.A. Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People: University Press of Mississippi, 1992
Bruce, C. Allons brasser le gombo, Regards nouveaux sur le fait acadien en Louisiane, 2015
Hirsch, A. and Logsdon, J. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization: LSU Press, 1992
Klingler, T. How Much Acadian is there in Cajun: 2009
Landry, C. A Creole melting pot, the politics of language, race, and identity in southwest Louisiana, 1918-45: Doctoral thesis, University of Sussex, England
Other: various readings and analysis of Louisiana French-language literature and newspapers, including L’Athenée Louisianais and L’Abeille.
Related Backroad Planet Stories
If you are considering travel to Louisiana, Backroad Planet offers you a wealth of resources to help you plan a perfect itinerary.
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share thoughts and reflections on our academic articles. Have you ever tried to understand the difference between the Louisiana terms “Creole” and “Cajun?” If so, we would love to hear your story. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!