Imagining Acadiana: Cajun Identity in Modern Louisiana, 1920s-1970s

Jessica Dauterive

Advisor: Suzanne E. Smith, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, Jennifer Ritterhouse

Horizon Hall, #3225
April 19, 2024, 03:00 PM to 05:00 PM

Abstract:

This dissertation tells the history of how a modern Cajun identity developed in 20th century Louisiana. I argue that upwardly mobile Cajun community leaders renegotiated their own collective identity by engaging directly with mass culture and modernity. This identity is rooted in two competing perceptions. First, since at least the late the 19th century, outsiders perceived Cajuns as an isolated and ignorant group, due to their largely lower-class status and Franco-Catholic Acadian ethnicity. Second, beginning in the 1920s, Cajuns began to be seen as whiter and their Acadian ethnicity more refined which resulted in increased economic, social, and political power. This tension between a mythical and whiter Acadian identity and a historical and more ethnic Cajun identity would come to define the region of Southwest Louisiana that became known as Acadiana. This history disrupts assumptions that Cajun traditions survived through cultural tenacity and isolation as well as narratives that position modernity as only a harbinger of cultural degradation by blurring the line between tradition and modernity itself. The term Acadiana captures this paradox: it linguistically weaved the memory of the Acadian past into Louisiana’s modern cultural and economic landscape but was popularized by a local television company to describe its modern Cajun viewership. By examining key moments in the development of the region’s cultural identity from the 1920s-1970s, this dissertation shows how Acadiana emerged through the creation of regional Cajun culture industries that responded to new social, political, and technological forms. The work of these local community leaders makes clear that Acadiana’s traditional cultures did not survive in spite of modernity, but by engaging with the opportunities it presented for power, preservation, and profit.