A long thin line in the distance slices through the water like a crack in a windshield, obscuring the perfect reflection of puffy white clouds. Thick green mangrove trees tower over the swamp on both sides, some with moss dangling from their branches like scraggly beard hair. Here in southern Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin, 30 kilometres from Lafayette, I feel like I’m floating in the time of Noah’s ark after the flood.
As the line draws closer, it morphs into an asymmetrical ‘V’ and I can make out two humps with a long, dark green snout – a 3.5-metre alligator.
“They don’t come ‘cause they love me, they comin’ for a treat,” announces Byron Lemaire, the airboat’s captain and caretaker at McGee’s Atchafalaya Swamp Tours. Lemaire, 58, who lives alongside the swamp in a houseboat, adds a warning: “I’ve got birdhouses on my houseboat and I’ve done seen a gator waiting to swallow ‘em just like they was an M&M.”
As the adult gator brushes up against the side of the boat, Lemaire reaches down and pats it on the head. “Come smile for them people one more time,” he says.
The gator’s mouth opens agape and our captain tosses a hunk of meat between its sharp teeth before it sinks beneath the glassy water to enjoy its lunch.
“Y’all ready to turn on some AC?” Lemaire calls out as he fires up the airboat. Its propellers thump the air as Lemaire whizzes his vessel around tight bends like it’s the Millennium Falcon fleeing a battle in a Star Wars film.
Lemaire is Cajun; his unmistakably thick twang gives it away the moment you hear him speak. His parents descended from the exile of French-speaking Acadians from what is now Eastern Canada. Yet, while Lemaire recalls his parents speaking French while he was growing up in Kaplan, Louisiana, he can’t hold a conversation in the language. Well, except the “dirty stuff.”
“When I was young they didn’t let us speak French,” he says. “Back in those days if you spoke French they could paddle your bottom pretty good.”
Lemaire is part of a generation that saw its language slip away. In the last decade alone, the number of Louisianans who speak French at home has dropped from about 144,000 to under 100,000, according to U.S. census figures.
But a resurgence is happening. Not just in the form of Cajun music, recognizable for its use of the fiddle, accordion, and triangle. Nor in the form of Cajun soul food like gumbo (a meat or fish stew), boiled crawfish, or cracklins (fried pork skin) – though, Cajun music and food are extremely popular. Rather, the resurgence is happening with French itself – and young people are leading the charge.
“The story of the Acadians is one of survival against all odds,” writes Carl A. Brasseaux in 2005’s French, Cajun, Creole, Houma – A Primer on Francophone Louisiana. Sixteenth century French settlers who braved “the brutally inhospitable northern coast” to establish a small but successful colony in present-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick grew to become “the first group of European colonists to develop a distinctive North American identity.”
The Acadians were notoriously stubborn and did not acquiesce to French or British demands for allegiance even as the two powers struggled for control of New France, which allowed them to swell in numbers. It also helped contribute to their demise.
In 1755, after the British captured the French Fort Beauséjour, British Governor Charles Lawrence once again offered the Acadians a choice: swear allegiance to Britain or face deportation. The Acadians refused, and Lawrence ordered the expulsion of the entire Acadian population – approximately 10,000 people – in what became known as Le Grand Dérangement. The Acadians were sardined into overcrowded ships bound for other English colonies, France or the Caribbean. Thousands died en route of malnutrition and diseases like smallpox and typhus, while many others succumbed to starvation and illness attempting to survive in the lands where they were deposited. Scholars estimate at least half of the Acadians expelled from New France died in the Grand Dérangement.
In 1764, a group of the Acadian resistance led by Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil managed to escape to New Orleans, a city which was on its last legs of French control before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Joined by other exiled Acadians, Broussard planned to march up to Quebec to be with other French speakers and Acadians, but the migration north never happened.
Initially, Acadians thrived and lived peacefully in Louisiana among English-speaking Americans and fellow French-speaking Creoles, but following the 1861-1865 Civil War which devastated the South, Acadians found themselves scrambling for work. Many turned to the swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, where they found jobs as fishermen and trappers.
By the 20th century, the Second World War and the rising popularity of radio and television calcified English as America’s lingua franca and a socioeconomic stigma towards Acadians started to form. Cajun, the anglo term for Acadian, and “coonass” were used as racist slurs intended to paint Acadians as poor, lazy and uneducated.
For Acadians, jobs such as work in the Texas oilfields required English and their maternal language had become a detriment to making friends and moving up in America, so many chose not to teach French to their children. The 1921 Louisiana state constitution banning French from schools further contributed to the language’s decline and Acadian teachers didn't stand in the way.
“These teachers showed no more sympathy than their Anglo colleagues for Cajun French, and French speakers in their care were chastised and publicly humiliated for using their mother tongue on the school grounds,” writes Brasseaux.
At the Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park in Lafayette, actors chop wood and sew clothes as an ode to the Cajun settlers in Acadiana, as the Francophone region of Louisiana became known. In one haunting room, a chalkboard bears the same sentence scrawled dozens of times: “I will not speak French.”
Outside the grounds, Brian Klingman, 36, casts his fishing rod into a swamp and tries to yank it out – it’s stuck. With little hesitation, he pulls off his shirt and dives into the murky water, wading through the seaweed to unhook his bait.
“You know you’re Cajun when you wake up with a hangover and you still go for the crawfish in the fridge,” a soaking-wet Klingman exclaims.
Next to him, Grant Vercher, 32, fearlessly casts his rod into the swamp, the large fleur de lis tattoo on his ribcage showcasing his Cajun heritage. In a thick accent, Vercher says his identity never occurred to him until he spent eight years in the Marines and was labeled a “redneck” and “retarded.” Despite his negative experience, Vercher says he’s proud of his heritage. “I wish I would have learned more [French] because it’s really something that’s dying,” he says.
Since 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) has been trying to ensure that French remains intact by hiring French teachers.
“A lot of people think French died out in Louisiana a long time ago, but that's not the case,” says CODOFIL spokesman Matt Mick.
CODOFIL’s executive director Peggy Feehan hails from a small French-speaking town in New Brunswick called Kedgwick. She came to Louisiana to teach in 1999 and ended up staying. “I would see grandmas walking to the bank and I could picture my grandmother walking to the bank and it felt like home because people have the same sense of warmth and kindness as the Acadians [in Canada],” she says.
Some of the words Feehan heard in Louisiana were more similar to the French she was raised with than what’s spoken in Europe. Words like “char” instead of “voiture” for car and “souper” instead of “dîner” for dinner. She also noticed different spellings and pronunciations, such as “byenvenu” or “je vas” instead of “je vais” for “I go.”
Most of CODOFIL’s teachers are from France or Belgium and are even less adept at the intricacies of Louisiana French than a Canadian French speaker like Feehan, but she says CODOFIL instructs teachers not to correct local dialects as errors. She also admits it’s been tough to attract Canadian teachers. “If there were no jobs in Canada maybe they’d be more willing to come here,” she says.
Beyond CODOFIL, “French Table” language meetups, Facebook groups, local radio programs like KVPI’s La Tasse de Cafe, and music festivals are fighting to preserve Louisiana French, which celebrated its inclusion in international French organization La Francophonie in 2018. Meanwhile, a growing number of young French-speaking Louisianans are helping to carry the culture into the next generation.
Will McGrew, 24, co-founded Télé-Louisiane, an online broadcaster showcasing all forms of Louisiana French culture, in October 2018. “In order to fully understand our identity, heritage, and history as Louisianans, we must be able to sing along to our music, read our literature, speak our language, and practice our culture,” McGrew says. “Speaking French is such an important part of this process because so much of our culture and history is connected to it.”
In the same month as Télé-Louisiane’s launch, Joseph Pons, 23, and Chase Cormier, 25, started recording Charrer-Veiller, an interview-style podcast about anything Louisiana and French. “Sans le français, la Louisiane ne serait qu’un autre état américain,” Pons says — “without French, Louisiana would be just another American state.”
In early 2019, Bennett Boyd Anderson III, 22, co-launched one of the first French publications in Louisiana since L’Abeille de la Nouvelle-Orléans stopped publishing in 1923. Anderson’s publication, Le Bourdon de la Louisiane, includes a mixture of Louisiana and standard European French.
Anderson, who studies French at Tulane University in New Orleans, says Cajun culture is “absolutely cool” right now, but he worries it’s become “touristified.” He draws a link between the risk of losing Louisiana French and the looming dangers of climate change, pointing to the lasting physical and social impacts of natural disasters like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. “We’re not only in danger of actually washing away because of erosion and because of hurricanes, but we have a very unique culture [that’s] becoming a little diluted,” he says.
Anderson recalls a favourite saying of his grandparents that to him has become emblematic of the struggle to keep Louisiana French heritage alive: “Lâches pas la patate,” which literally means “don’t drop the potato.”
“You don’t give up.”