Descending from Acadian exiles, the Cajuns retain a unique dialect of the French language and numerous other cultural traits that distinguish them as an ethnic group.
Cajuns were officially recognized by the U.S. government as a national ethnic group in 1980 per a discrimination lawsuit filed in federal district court. Presided over by Judge Edwin Hunter, the case, known as Roach v. Dresser Industries Valve and Instrument Division (494 F.Supp. 215, D.C. La., 1980), hinged on the issue of the Cajuns' ethnicity. Significantly, Judge Hunter held in his ruling that:"We conclude that plaintiff is protected by Title VII's ban on national origin discrimination.
The Louisiana Acadian (Cajun) is alive and well. He is “up front” and “main stream.” He is not asking for any special treatment. By affording coverage under the “national origin” clause of Title VII he is afforded no special privilege. He is given only the same protection as those with English, Spanish, French, Iranian, Czechoslavakian, Portuguese, Polish, Mexican, Italian, Irish, et al., ancestors."
The word "Cajun" is the anglicised pronunciation of Cadien (the truncated form of Acadian in French). There is some dispute over the origin of the term Acadia; some suggest that it came from the name of the ancient Greek region of Arcadia; others suggest that it is a derivation of the Mikmaq Indian word cadique, meaning "a good place to set up camp."
Ancestors and history
Contrary to popular belief, Cajuns do not descend solely from Acadian exiles who settled in south Louisiana in the eighteenth century. They also descend from other ethnic groups with whom those exiles intermarried over many generations, including Spanish, German, and French Creole settlers. Indeed, historian Carl A. Brasseaux has asserted that it was this process of intermarriage that created the Cajuns in the first place. Some Cajun parishes, such as Evangeline and Avoyelles, possess relatively very few inhabitants of Acadian origin.
Instead, their populations descend in many cases from settlers who migrated to the region from Quebec, Mobile, or directly from France. Regardless, it is generally acknowledged that Acadian influences have prevailed in most sections of south Louisiana.
The Acadians were evicted from Nova Scotia in the period 1755 - 1763; this has become known as the Great Upheaval or Le Grand Dérangement. At the time there was a war going on in what is now Canada between France and Great Britain over the colony of New France. This war is known in the United States as the French and Indian War, though it is generally considered only one theater of the Seven Years' War.
The Acadians were scattered throughout the eastern seaboard (where some became slaves in British colonies), the Caribbean, and Europe. Families were split and put on different ships with different destinations. Many ended up in French-colonized Louisiana, mainly in the American South. France had ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, prior to their defeat by Britain, and two years before the first Acadians began settling in Louisiana.
The interim French officials provided land and supplies. The Spanish governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, later proved to be hospitable, permitting the Acadians to continue to speak their language, practice Roman Catholicism—which was also the official religion of Spain—and otherwise pursue their livelihoods with minimal interference. Some families and individuals did travel north through the Louisiana territory to set up homes as far north as Wisconsin. Cajuns fought in the Revolutionary War for America's freedom.
Although they fought for Spanish General Galvez, their contribution to the winning of the war has been recognized. "Galvez leaves New Orleans with an army of Spanish regulars and the Louisiana militia made up of 600 Cajun volunteers and captures the British strongholds of Fort Bute at Bayou Manchac, across from the Acadian settlement at St. Gabriel. And on September 21, they attack and capture Baton Rouge" A review of the list of members shows many common Cajun names participated in the Battle of Baton Rouge and the Battle for West Florida.
The Galvez Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was formed in memory of those soldiers. Their fight against the British was partially in response to their treatment by the British in evicting them from Acadie.
The Cajuns who settled in southern Louisiana originally did so in the area just west of what is now New Orleans, mainly along the Mississippi River. Later, they were moved by the Spanish colonial government to areas west and southwest of New Orleans, in a region later named Acadiana, where they shared the swamps and prairies with the Attakapa and Chitimacha Native American tribes.
Cajuns have come to represent a mixed population, having intermarried with other groups over two centuries. Non-Acadian French Creoles in rural areas were absorbed into Cajun communities.
Many Cajuns also have ancestors who were not French. German colonists began to settle in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase, particularly on the German Coast along the Mississippi River north of New Orleans. People of Spanish origin, including many Canary Islanders have settled along the Gulf Coast, and in some cases intermarried into Cajun families. Anglo-American settlers in the region often were assimilated into Cajun communities, especially those who arrived before the English language became predominant in southern Louisiana.
One obvious result of this cultural mixture is the variety of surnames that are common among the Cajun population. Surnames of the original Acadian settlers (which are documented) have been augmented by French and even non-French family names that have merged into Cajun populations. The spelling of many family names was changed for a variety of reasons.
Mostly secluded until the early 1900s, Cajuns today are assimilated into the mainstream society and culture. Some Cajuns live in communities outside of Louisiana. Also, some people identify themselves as Cajun culturally despite lacking Acadian ancestry.