Teaching Cajun and Creole Culture through Folktales

There is a direct relationship between culture and folktales. The tales reflect the everyday life of a people. Creole and Cajun tales have been passed down orally for many generations, but some have been collected and published. Both Cajun and Creole people in Louisiana have stories which can be used in the classroom to develop an awareness and understanding of their respective cultures.

Terms Defined

The term Creole is often interpreted in a variety of ways. In Louisiana, the early descendants of Europeans born in the colony wanted to distinguish themselves from immigrants coming to the colony. Creole was used to refer to these natives and also to any native product or style. To distinguish further, French Creole referred to the white aristocracy, and Black Creole to the Africans or French-speaking blacks. Later, the term Creole came to mean a person of mixed race or a blending of cultures.

The term Cajun is an Americanized form of the term Cadien (pronounced Ca’jin) and referred originally to the expelled Acadians from Nova Scotia who settled in Louisiana. The French-speaking Roman Catholic colony attracted these exiles, and they immigrated to Louisiana. However, as the English language came to dominate the business and political arenas, the Cajuns became an “excluded minority” and were increasingly known as illiterate and ignorant.

 

Photo: Cajun Culture Depiction / Mkpoland42

The History of Folktales in Cajun and Creole Culture

Cajun and Creole tales include hearty stories of doctors and ailments, ethnic stories, village chronicles, jokes, nature and animals, and the devil and God. In animal tales, animals are assigned human characteristics and are allowed to speak, laugh, cry, and reason. Specific traits were often assigned to certain animals: cleverness (rabbit, fox, turtle), ignorance (wolf, bear, hyena), and malice (spider, monkey). One example of an animal tale is Why Alligator Hates Dog, by J. J. Reneaux (1995). In the story, Dog taunts Alligator (M’su Cocodrie) daily from the safety of the cabin he shares with Man. When alligator gets a chance to come after Dog, the Dog promises to share his dinner. Instead, Dog warns Man, and Alligator is chased away. Grandparents used these stories as oral cartoons to entertain their grandchildren.

Magic, or “fairy,” tales often include complex plots involving quests for treasure and mighty deeds by heroes/heroines. The language of the stories is more formal, and the tales are typically long, oral narratives. Marie Jolie tells of a young girl who is tricked into marrying the devil. She shows great courage in her escape and rides an alligator across the Mississippi River. When the devil forces the alligator to take him across, the alligator dives deep, and the river takes the devil (who can’t swim) downstream to New Orleans. Some say he washed up in the French Quarter on Bourbon Street.

Tall tales are often called “whoppers,” “lies,” or “yarns” and are particularly popular in the United States. One of the most common uses of lies and tall tales is to test the gullibility of newcomers. In The Bent Shotgun, a man is duck hunting at a round pond. He sees all the ducks along the bank and wants to shoot them, so he bends the barrel of his shotgun along the lines of the pond and kills the ducks. Cajun storytellers are artistic liars. These tales often require complicity between the teller and members of his audience. Many of the best tales are based on two liars trying to outdo each other and seeing how much they can get away with.

Buried treasure or mysterious events form the basis of legendary tales. During the time of the Civil War, Southerners often buried their money to prevent Yankees or vigilantes from securing their funds. Stories are told of Jean Lafitte and his buried treasures and of folks who died without telling anyone the location of hidden treasures. In one story, a Confederate soldier making his way home takes shelter from a storm in an abandoned house along a bayou. At night he meets the ghost of Jean Lafitte, who begs the soldier to take his treasure and save his soul. The soldier’s terror causes him to run away and warn others to beware of the bloody curse on anyone who would take the treasure.

Tales that exaggerate the attributes of a hero or describe personal courage, clever characters, or fortunate accidents can be classified as historical tales. These stories cover a wide range of topics, from life on the harsh frontier or resolving problems through duels to practical jokes or stories of moonshining and contraband running. In the book Little Pierre: A Cajun Story from Louisiana, by Robert D. San Souci (2003), Little Pierre is small but much smarter than his four brothers. When the brothers try to save the rich man’s daughter, who is being held captive by a swamp ogre, the brothers demonstrate just how ignorant they are. It is up to Little Pierre to figure out a plan. He tricks the swamp ogre, and they all escape. The girl naturally decides to marry Little Pierre, and her papa gives him a farm as a reward.

 

Census_Bureau_2000,_Cajuns_in_the_United_StatesPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

For the Classroom

  • Students can sketch the migration path of the Cajuns from Acadia to Louisiana and follow the settlement patterns. How did the “neighbors” in surrounding areas influence the Cajun culture, and how did the Cajun culture influence others?
  • Students could taste Cajun cuisine and note the ingredients that came from other cultures (African okra, Choctaw filé powder, French roux, German andouille, Spanish jambalaya).
  • Students can read the traditional story of The Night before Christmas and do a comparative analysis with the Cajun Night before Christmas, by “Trosclair” (1992). Why would St. Nicholas dress in muskrat instead of fur and use alligators instead of reindeer? Another Christmas story that includes elements of the Cajun culture is The Legend of Papa Noel: A Cajun Christmas Story, by Terri Hoover Dunham (2006). Students can compare other Cajun folktale versions to their European counterparts with stories such as Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood (2003) or Jacques and de Beanstalk (2010), both by Mike Artell.
  • Students can examine tall tales that have developed in other areas of the United States, such as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, and compare them to the Cajun tales. How do the tales reflect the culture of the area?

Using stories from other cultures gives students insight and helps develop an understanding of the people of the world. Students will find that we have many similarities with one another, and embracing differences may improve our own lives.


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Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping Is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies (June 2021) provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.

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