The following information has been extracted from the second volume of LSUE's Louisiana Folklore Series, a project that was supported in part by funds from the Louisiana State Arts Council and the Louisiana Division of the Arts as administered by the Acadiana Arts Council. The volume, which includes four extensive interviews with representatives from four major culture groups, is the work of the late Dr. Susan LeJeune, Dr. Linda Langley, and Dr. Claude Oubre, all members of the LSUE faculty when the volume was published in the late 1990s (in 2009, Dr. Oubre is still a member of the faculty).
The Cajuns of the southwest Louisiana Prairie are descendants of the French who settled Acadie or Acadia in Canada during the seventeenth century. Isolated from and neglected by both France and Canada, the Acadians developed a tightly knit culture based on the interdependence of families and family members. They learned from their neighbors, the Micmac Indians, not only how to survive the rigors of the Acadian wilderness but to prosper in the process. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, France ceded Acadie to England (who renamed it Nova Scotia), making the Acadians subjects of England. However, the Acadians refused to take an unconditional oath of allegiance to England and insisted on being granted neutral status, as well as on retaining their Roman Catholic religious beliefs.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, the Acadians were compelled to take the oath of allegiance or be expelled. Instead of submitting to English rule and renouncing their Catholic faith, they were forced into exile and their homes and farms were burned. They left aboard crowded English vessels with only clothing and bare necessities. Many families became separated. They were sent to English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, Jamaica, or England itself.
With the end of the war in 1763, the Acadians began their journey to Louisiana. Joseph Broussard and other elders first went to Saint Domingue but were not satisfied with the settlement offer made by colonial officials there. In Louisiana, they rejected land near the settled regions along the Mississippi River and deliberately sought out a more isolated area where they could preserve their culture. They found their new Acadie in the isolation of the moss-draped swamps of the Atchafalaya basin and in the Opelousas prairie. Over the next century and a half, they would use this isolation to maintain their way of life, with God and family at the center of their culture.
Africans originally came to Louisiana as slaves during the second decade of the eighteenth century. Slaves continued to be brought to Louisiana throughout the 1700s. Most of these were victims of either wars or slave raiding parties originating in the area known as the Gold Coast or Guinea Coast of Africa in the triangle formed by the Niger River and the Atlantic. Among the tribes that were victims of slave raids were the Senegalese, the Gambians, the Bambara, and Poulard, and the Congo.
The Louisiana experience differs markedly from that of Africans in the Anglo-American colonies. Beginning with the Code Noire promulgated in 1724, it was possible for slaves to win their freedom in both French and Spanish Louisiana with much more ease than was possible in the English colonies of North America. Not only could they win their freedom, but they also were granted all the privileges of citizenship "as though they had been born free." Consequently, people of African ancestry in Louisiana made up two of the classes in Louisiana's three-caste socio-economic system. The first class was the Caucasian group. The second class were the free blacks and free persons of color (mixed racial ancestry). The third class were slaves. In Louisiana, the second class was composed of approximately 80 percent free persons of color and 20 percent free blacks while the slave class was approximately 80 percent black and 20 percent persons of mixed racial ancestry.
Louisiana's African population played an extremely important role in the development of Louisiana folklore, including oral traditions like storytelling, craft traditions like split oak baskets, and music traditions like zydeco. Even the word "gumbo" comes from the African word for okra.
Although there have been Germans in Louisiana since colonial times, the Germans of the southwest prairie around Robert's Cove (sometimes called German Cove) are relative newcomers. In the 1870s, Otto von Bismark, chancellor of the newly united Germany, began what he called a Kulturkampf (war of cultures) against the Catholic Church in Germany, including a variety of measures that put religious institutions under government control. In addition, under a military conscription law, German males were drafted for a 20-year period within an army in which the Catholic faith would be suppressed.
One group of German Catholics, led by a Benedictine priest, Father Thevis, left Germany, moving first to Indiana and then to Louisiana when Father Thevis was directed to establish a monastery there. He led his group (including many of his relatives) to the Robert's Cove area, where they worked to preserve their German culture. Although they had to learn English to communicate with their neighbors in Rayne and Crowley, they continued to teach their children German as a first language. A German school continued in existence until the 1920s, when a concerted effort was made to eliminate all languages except English from Louisiana schools.
The German contribution to the culture can be found in the farming techniques, the annual celebrations like St. Nicholas Day and the Oktoberfest in Robert's Cove, and various cooking traditions.
The Koasati or Coushatta belong to the Muskogean language group and were originally located in the area of the Upper Tennessee River Valley. By the 1720s, after being decimated by wars with Europeans and by disease, the Koasati migrated to what is now south-central Alabama. During the next 150 years, they avoided contact with the Spanish and English. As the Anglo attitude toward the Indians worsened, the Koasati found themselves allied with the French colony of Louisiana under Bienville during the second decade of the eighteenth century.
In the late 1700s, the Koasati began to play a prominent role in the regional trade and politics, looking to the French and then the Spanish governors for assistance. When Anglos began moving into their homeland in the 1790s, 214 Koasati, under the direction of Chief Red Shoes, left their homes and ultimately moved to the Bayou Chicot area of the Opelousas district. After the purchase of Louisiana by the United States, the Koasati moved to a neutral strip along the Sabine River where they were under neither Spanish nor American control. Thereafter, they attempted to remain neutral in conflicts among the Anglos, French, and Spanish, but they had to relocate frequently.
In the 1880s, the Koasati returned to Louisiana and settled in the area north of Elton, along Bayou Blue, where many Koasati continue to live to this day. The tribe was terminated from the rolls of the federal government in 1953, then petitioned for and received re-recognition as an Indian tribe in 1973. Despite centuries of warfare, disease, and other hardships, they have endured and today are a vital and thriving community. Many tribal members are full-blooded Koasati who speak their native language as a first language. The Koasati are widely recognized for the quality of their traditional crafts, such as the long-leaf pine needle baskets, and for their highly preserved oral traditions.
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Updated March 2009
These pages were established and maintained by David Simpson, who retired from LSUE in 2009.