BP oil spill imperils Cajun culture
The Cajun culture has a rich tradition with deep ties to the Louisiana bayous. But the BP oil spill's impact on the economy and the environment is straining those ties.
Darren Martin is a third-generation shrimp boat operator – and as far as he knows fishing may be in his blood even beyond that. His family has been rooted in the small winding bayous of southwest Louisiana since the 1700s, when the Cajuns of French descent were exiled by the British from their native Acadia, now eastern Canada.Skip to next paragraph
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With such a rich connection to the land and water here, it would only be natural for Mr. Martin to want his teenage son to continue the family trade – pulling up seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and selling it at his family's stand across from their ancestral home in this quiet town of just over 3,000 people.
Yet after years of hardships ranging from hurricanes to floods to shrinking prices and now an oil spill, Martin has determined that commercial fishing, a cornerstone of Cajun identity, is dying and that "this generation," his own, "is going to be the last."
"Why am I still here?" he asks. "I don't want my son to do this. But I can't keep him away."
There are countless casualties of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that sent oil spewing into the Gulf in late April, but how it is affecting Cajuns here is particularly profound: It threatens not just to take away their livelihoods, but also to grind down an identity of independence and self-reliance that was established when their ancestors were forced to find ways to survive in an environment that many considered uninhabitable.
Cajuns interviewed for this story all expressed loyalty to the land of their ancestors and said that those who traveled outside the state always find a reason to return. Many expressed the belief that their way of life would not work outside the region and said that when they do travel, they no longer feel Cajun, but like just another assimilated American.
"What are they going to do in another place? What they do is what their families have been doing forever," says Ann Savoy, an author and Cajun musician who lives outside Eunice, La.
Ms. Savoy says that central to understanding the Cajun culture is knowing that isolation. "The Cajuns see themselves as another culture and not so much Americans. They love this freedom that they wouldn't have in other places. Because when you live in a swamp, you can do anything, all the time," she says.
Savoy says Cajun identity is so distinct that each town often has its own cuisine, musical style, and dialect. The cultural markers are a result of families staying put for generations, which is what makes these communities resilient in the face of nature's hardships and resistant to change.
Tracking how many Cajuns live in the region is difficult, says James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He estimates that about 400,000 people identify themselves as Cajun, but the term has broadened over the past century to include many who may not be direct descendants of the Acadians but may have married one, or those who simply came from families that moved to the region 100 years ago and took to the culture.
The culture was under threat in the early- to mid-20th century when Americanization efforts barred the speaking of Cajun French in schools. That was remedied in a renaissance period in the 1970s and '80s when the language, music, handicrafts, and storytelling was embraced and the Cajun stigma faded. "People started to self-identify with the term more," says Mr. Wilson.