Louisiana Folklife Journal Volume 34
Rendez-Vous des Cadiens Prairie by Hardy Jones
Rendez-vous des Cadiens Prairie
Prairie Cajuns are Louisiana’s cowboys. This area of southwest Louisiana is not all swamps and marshes. The land is low, consisting of pine forests and flat, grassy prairies—perfect for cattle ranching. In fact, on a trail-ride in the late 1800s my grand-grandpere Homer Felice met Miss Greenleaf, his future wife, when he stopped and asked for some water. I’ve never been told how it happened exactly, but I picture it like this: On the outskirts of Broady Marsh, which lies just east of Lake Charles, grand-grandpere Felice and a few hundred head of cattle came through. Family lore claims that grand-grandmere was a Cheyenne and that her family had fled imprisonment in an army fort in Oklahoma, and at the time of her meeting Homer, she was a skinny teenager who drew a bucket of water from the well and brought it to him, a man well into middle-age. This all took place in front of the cypress cabin where Miss Greenleaf lived with her mother and father and most likely her siblings, though I’m not certain if she had any. In front of the cabin was her father’s buggy, in which he made house calls, for he was a healer and worked on Natives and non-Natives alike. Hearing the ruckus that a few hundred head of cattle made, Miss Greenleaf’s father stepped out of the cabin to see a tall Prairie cowboy asking his daughter for a drink of water.
Grand-grandpere took the opportunity to rest his saddle sore backside and hopped off his horse. Out of respect, he spoke to Miss Greenleaf’s father, and grand-grandpere had to speak French, since that was the only language he knew. Miss Greenleaf’s father, living in southwest Louisiana, probably also spoke French or at least knew enough to understand that grand-grandpere was thanking him for the water, hospitality, and expressing his desire for his daughter’s hand in marriage. After drinking his fill, grand-grandpere handed Miss Greenleaf the bucket and got back on his horse, but before leaving, he told her: “I’ll be back for you.” He drove the cattle to Lake Charles and sold them. He took that money and married Miss Greenleaf and bought six-hundred and fifty acres of virgin pine at a quarter an acre, the site today of Feliceville.
I’ve seen one black and white picture of Miss Greenleaf, and that was when I was ten and fascinated with having a Native American grand-grandmere. It hung on a bedroom wall in the Felice house. She wore a buckskin dress, moccasins, and her hair, onyx and parted in the middle, hung in two braids past her breasts. Miss Greenleaf was a tall, thin woman, and Grandpere’s lanky body was a replica of hers. She passed in the 1930s and was only in early middle-age at the time of her death, but having ten children, of which Grandpere was the third, and living on the Cajun Prairie took its toll.
With all this in mind, Mom and I entered the Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve Prairie Acadian Cultural Center on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1999. The Cultural Center, which was built in 1991, faced West Park Avenue in Eunice, Louisiana, which is known as the “Cajun Prairie Capitol.” In the center of the lobby were maps of all the continents decorated with brightly colored straight pins, representing the homes of all the visitors. Louisiana, of course, was pricked to death. All the other states had at least one pin, even Hawaii and Alaska, but the greatest concentration was in the Northeast and Midwest.
Canada had several pins, most of which, not surprisingly, were from the Maritimes and Quebec. In Europe, France commanded the most but was followed closely by England. French-speaking Africa also had quite a few pins. But what surprised me the most was Asia. The continent was not riddled with pins, but Japan and Korea had flurries of color, as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Folk came half-way around the world to visit this place, yet during my high school years I’d been living an hour from the Cultural Center and never heard of it until great-aunt Gertie told me.
Bookshelves dominated the left wall of the lobby, with books and pamphlets ranging from French translations of “Evangeline” to historical and sociological accounts of Acadians, Cajuns, Creoles, and native tribes of Louisiana. At the end of the bookshelves were cookbooks, and across from them was the front desk, at which stood two Park Rangers in green militaristic-slacks and khaki shirts with a badge on the shoulder and a name tag over the heart. The man had a small black pony-tail protruding from the back of his head. His name tag read Domengeaux and he had a narrow, close cropped black beard, and his skin, slightly olive, shined softly, giving his face a welcoming feel.
Ranger Woods was the female Ranger, and she told me to call her Ranger Claudia. She too had black hair, and her nose, prominent and proud, set her face off, giving her a scholarly, friendly appearance. A few other visitors, a mix of tourists and local older Cajun couples, walked around the Cultural Center, and Ranger Claudia went to help a lady find a specific cookbook while Ranger Domengeaux gave me a pin to put in the map. I had attended high school in DeRidder, Louisiana and Mom still lived there; however, at the time of the visit I was pursuing an MFA at the University of Memphis. Did I announce with my pin that I was a Louisiana insider or outsider? Being born in Florida and living there for the first fourteen years of my life made me an outsider, but part of the reason for this search into Cajun history was to find my Cajun identity. I squeezed my pin in amongst a half dozen others around DeRidder.
I stepped into the main exhibit room and L’Historie was immediately to my left with a wall map reminiscent of classical cartography entitled “The Acadian Migration.” Red lines originating in France led to Maritime Canada, and from there more red lines led to the Caribbean before ending in south Louisiana.
Beneath the map was a timeline which began with 1604, the year the Acadians left western France and settled in Canada—L’Acadie, placing them in the New World three years prior to the British at Jamestown and sixteen years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. In 1713, after France and Britain signed the Treaty of Utrecht, L’Acadie became a British colony and was renamed Nova Scotia. The British were outnumbered by the Acadians, who had been there for five generations and refused to swear allegiance to the King of England or take up arms for him. The Acadians, unlike most European colonists, married Native Americans more frequently, and in L’Acadie this meant the Micmac people, sworn enemies of the British, and, not wanting to risk insulting their neighbors and in-laws, gave the Acadians all the more reason to remain neutral.