What do we mean when we talk about Cajun Country? The simple answer is that the term is synonymous with Acadiana, a 22-parish region settled in the mid-18th century by exiles from present-day Nova Scotia. About 3,000 Acadians arrived in South Louisiana from 1764 to around 1785, and now, more than 250 years later, their creolized name, Cajun (derived from the French Acadien), can be found everywhere: there’s the Ragin’ Cajuns, the athletic moniker of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL). There’s the Cajun Heartland State Fair, held annually (pre-COVID) on the grounds of the Cajundome. And countless small businesses, from Cajun Power to Cajun Fitness, Cajun Broadband, and Cajun Mart, use the term to ground their names in a sense of place.
South Louisiana’s reputation as Cajun Country may seem as natural and inevitable as Spanish moss on a live oak tree, but it's actually a fairly recent phenomenon, the latest twist in a long story about Creole identity and United States race relations. When photographers Douglas Baz and Charles H. Traub spent six months in South Louisiana in the mid-1970s, creating the work now on view in THNOC’s new exhibition Cajun Document, the region was only just beginning to be known as Cajun Country. For two centuries, “Creole” had been the dominant term used to describe the region’s people and culture; Cajuns existed, but prior to the 1960s they did not self-identify as such in large numbers. For Cajuns were—and are—a subset of Louisiana Creoles. Today, common understanding holds that Cajuns are white and Creoles are Black or mixed race; Creoles are from New Orleans, while Cajuns populate the rural parts of South Louisiana. In fact, the two cultures are far more related—historically, geographically, and genealogically—than most people realize.
A Creole woman stands outside her home in Mansura, Lousiana, in 1974. (THNOC, © Douglas Baz and Charles H. Traub, 2019.0362.120.1)