Cajun Renaissance Part One: Early Acadian Homes
Everything on Earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. We will be known by the tracks we leave here.
…Native American Proverb
By Stephanie M. Chambers
How Art and Artifacts Tell Stories About the Past
Most of what we know about our country’s prehistoric inheritance we learned through the art, artifacts, customs, and tools left behind by early ancestors. While the food and music of Louisiana never lost its presence in the national cultural vernacular, the Cajun language and lifestyle practices diminished until a concerted effort by the state in the 1960s brought about its renaissance. Dallas residential architect, Stephen Chambers, recently traveled to Lafayette in Southwest Louisiana to study the revival of Acadian and Creole architecture in the region. If New Orleans is the birthplace of French Louisiana, Lafayette, St. Martin, and St. Mary parishes are where the Acadian culture was nurtured, and where the traditions continue today.
Lafayette Preserves its Cultural History for Future Benefits
Vermilionville was the first name given to Lafayette, Louisiana. The Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park was Lafayette’s answer to the preservation of its Acadian, Creole and Native American cultures during the period 1765-1890. Since its opening in 1990, the historic village has become one of Lafayette’s premiere tourist attractions. Vermilionville sits on a beautiful tree-covered 23-acre site on the banks of the Bayou Vermilion in the heart of Lafayette, providing a place for history, music, food, cultural exchange, historic architecture, and ancestral research. Many families gather at the Center for reunions and to learn their family’s stories.
Native American Contributions to the Cultural Mélange
Lafayette is among the Southwest Louisiana parishes where Acadian, African and Native Americans of widely divergent classes and lifestyle found shelter beneath the oaks of the Vermilion river and sustenance from the cypress swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin. In prehistoric times, the Attakapas-Ishak (500-400 BC) divided into two moieties, or ritual groups, “The Sunrise People” and “The Sunset People.” The Sunrise People occupied what is now known as Southwest Louisiana. The Sunset people remained on the Texas coast from Houston to Galveston Bay. The Ishak were called Attakapas, “man eaters,” by the Choctaw, who used the term as a racial slur to the Spaniards and French colonizers in Louisiana. The Native American tribe never denied the use of cannibalism of their enemies in their ceremonies, preferring to be feared rather than assimilated by Europeans in the newly colonized territory.
Early Art and Artifacts
We know of the Attakapas culture because they left examples of their pottery and tools, which were improved upon by the Plaquemines Native Americans (1200 to 1700 AD), a subset of the Mississippi-Biloxi. Their pottery was decorated by designs cut into the surface of the wet clay, and they sometimes added small solid handles called lugs and textured the surface by brushing clumps of grass over the vessel before it was fired. Pottery was included in burials as grave goods, often being ritually “killed.” This type has a hole in the base of the vessel that was cut while the pot was being made, usually before it was fired. The Attakapas’ rich heritage gave the region tasso, a smoked and dried meat used in jambalayas and gumbo. Seafood pies, lively music, and good time dances were their other gifts.
While the Attakapas created temporary tipi-like shelters fashioned from palms and coastal vegetation, the Plaquemines lived in villages centered on large ceremonial centers with two or more platform mounds facing an open plaza. The site of a mound was usually one with special significance, either a pre-existing mortuary site, temple, or civic structure. The flat-topped, pyramidal mounds usually underwent multiple episodes of mound construction and were built in several stages. In earlier times, buildings were usually circular, but later were rectangular. They were constructed of wattle and daub, similar to bousillage, a combination of Spanish moss and mud, used by the later settlers, the Acadians.
Before their Grande Derangement from Acadie in Nova Scotia, the Acadian French lived on the land that they cultivated, and that’s what they wanted in their new Louisiana homeland. The first generation houses were comprised of two rooms, often built right onto the ground with dirt floors. Experts at building the long-span roof frames, the Acadians used tall peaked or gabled roofs, which allowed water from frequent rain to run off quickly. The color palette of early Cajun homes included bright ochres, mossy greens, brilliant oranges and reds, and slate blues and grays. Many Acadian-style extended roofs featured a “projecting comb ridge.” Because of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODIFIL) and other cultural organizations, many aspects beyond the French language have been preserved for the appreciation and education of generations to come. Many early Acadian homes can be seen in Vermilionville, Acadiana Village, and in the city of Lafayette. We are all the richer for these preservation efforts.
COMING SOON-Part Two: Rural Mardi Gras Traditions
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