Between working in Baton Rouge and having family in New Orleans, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on Louisiana and its culture. I have spent many nights listening to music on Frenchmen Street in the incomparable Fauborg Marigny, eaten my weight in traditional Louisiana cuisine, and have celebrated Mardi Gras on St. Charles.
However, there was one piece of Louisiana I had yet to experience: Cajun culture. While there are Cajun influences in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, these cities along the Mississippi are not the center of Cajun culture. So I decided to head out into the region of Louisiana known as Acadiana and it’s principle city, Lafayette.
The Cajuns – A (Very) Brief History
To understand this area, it is important to understand the people who settled it. The Acadians (simply known as ‘Cajuns’ today) were settlers of French origin living in Nova Scotia and the Maritime provinces of Canada (known as Acadia at the time). In the 1750′s, The French and Indian War erupted between Great Britain and France, with battle lines being drawn in through North America.
Great Britain was the victor and took control of French Canada and Acadia. When the French-speaking, Roman Catholic-practicing Acadians refused to recognize the British Crown, they were forced out, resettling in Southern Louisiana.
The Cajuns arrived in Louisiana finding a very different environment from their previous homes in the maritime provinces of Canada. Instead of windswept coasts of the Atlantic, the Cajuns were forced to adapt to the ever-changing swamps, marshes and bayous of the Gulf Coast. It is in and around these swamps that the Cajun culture developed into what many know it as today.
The Atchafalaya and Acadiana
On my drive into Lafayette from Baton Rouge, I passed through the heart of this landscape – the Atchafalaya River Basin. The swamp is the largest of its kind in the United States and rather than try and circumvent it, Interstate 10 raises on stilts as it carves right through it. Though the road stretched out in front of me, all I could see in every other direction was a river of trees.
The Atchafalaya is teeming with life – Roseate spoonbills and great egrets stalk their next meals in the shallow water while the venomous snakes wait silently for their next victims. Turtles, lizards, frogs, and various other reptiles and amphibians call the swamp home, but the top predator in these waters is the American Alligator.
It’s an extremely difficult environment for humans to thrive or even survive in, yet that is exactly what the original Acadians who moved to the area accomplished, adapting to the wildlife, the heat and humidity, and the rise and fall of the water levels in this extreme environment.
Though it is popular to characterize Cajuns as a group of people living in the swamps, many actually chose to live in the hill country and prairies that also make up the region. As I sped over the Atchafalaya swamp, it was this dryer region that I was headed for, and the city that has been called the Gateway to Acadiana – Lafayette, Louisiana.
When I arrived in Lafayette, seeing solid ground was a welcome site after passing through the flooded forest that separates the city from Baton Rouge. But upon arriving in town, it was clear that this dry city embraced its ties to the surrounding swamp. The visitors center is located (rather unnecessarily) in a stilted structure built on an artificial body of water resembling the Atchafalaya and some of the top attractions in Lafayette are the recreations of historical Cajun swamp life in the forms of recreated historic period villages.
University of Louisiana Lafayette Cypress Swamp
Though Lafayette isn’t in the swamp, I had heard about a swamp ecosystem recreated within the city. On the campus of the University of Louisiana Lafayette (whose mascot is the Ragin’ Cajuns, fittingly) I found one of the more unique campus features I’ve ever seen.
The Cypress Swamp is a recreation of the Atchafalaya environment in the middle of campus. The still, murky water harbors cypress knees, Spanish moss, and other dense vegetation that grows thick in this man-made swamp. But plants aren’t the only life in the on-campus swamp. Signs warned of alligators and before long, I spotted one swimming slowly and silently across the swamp.
After seeing a live Bengal tiger at Louisiana State University, alligators in Lake Alice at the University of Florida, and now this, I’m beginning to think my own university needs to build an artificial mountain complete with a herd of bighorn sheep (my college mascot) just to keep up.
The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist
The Cajuns were forced out of the original Acadia due to their refusal to sign an oath of allegiance to the British Crown and its official religion. Among other reasons for choosing Louisiana as their new home, the Cajuns knew they had religious allies in Spanish-controlled Louisiana who would allow them to practice their mutual religion (Roman Catholicism).
The oldest Catholic church in Lafayette Parish is the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Behind the cathedral, a stately cemetery stretches out with ornate gravestones and lavish mausoleums marking the final resting places of the well-to-do in Lafayette. Not surprisingly, many of the gravestones contained French names like Dubois, Petit, and Roux.
The set of circumstances that led the Acadians moving to Louisiana and persisting and surviving in some of the harshest living conditions has made the Cajun culture one of the most vibrant folk cultures in America. And Lafayette is perhaps the best place to experience it…at least without a swamp boat, that is.
interstate 10 picture courtesy of Phillie Casablanca