by James LaForest
I recently took a trip to Louisiana, primarily to see family, but also to visit what is arguably the ‘French’ culture capital of the USA. It was my first trip there and my destination after Bossier City was not New Orleans, but rather the area around Lafayette. Specifically, I wanted to visit some of the small towns of Acadiana. It rained a great deal, which made me get lost even with GPS. But there were some encounters I want to share with the readers of Voyageur Heritage and with the people of the Great Lakes and beyond who wonder about the future of Franco-heritage communities in North America.
My initial impression confirmed for me that Louisiana is not just a stalwart of French heritage, but a leader and an innovator. From Eunice to Breaux Bridge to Arnaudville, my perception of the region was that of a place blessed by a perpetual cultural incubation that engages a wide spectrum of the population. From the ubiquitous visual cues of the fleur-de-lys, crawfish (and crawfish turned into fleurs-de-lys!), and signs in French to revitalization projects focusing on art, music, language, and food, French culture is a way of life.
One place in particular stood out for me as a model of great community engagement: NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville. NUNU is a non-profit organization whose mission is “dedicated to providing a stage/platform/gallery for creative living by facilitating community, economic, and artistic/cultural development.” In practice, NUNU is a center for art, language, genealogy, economy, innovation, networking, and learning.
I had the opportunity to speak with the co-developer of the project, George Marks, and volunteer Carole Gauthier Lancon, about their work and how it has developed over just a few years. I rarely go out to lunch with complete strangers, but fifteen minutes after we met I was invited along with them to a local restaurant where I learned so much about local friendliness, Acadiana, and the passion that drives their organization.
Louisiana invests deeply in its French heritage. Organizations such as CODIFIL (the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation, and local tourist agencies promote everything from supermarkets to music museums, constituting an infrastructure that reinforces cultural continuity. However, theirs would not be a success story if local residents did not participate. And participation requires that there be something relevant to their lives in the ‘performance’ of culture.
In our conversation about NUNU and Arnaudville, the main theme that kept resurfacing was the importance of recognizing and utilizing ‘cultural assets.’ ‘Cultural assets’ are the resources that help a culture thrive – musicians, artists, storytellers, chefs come to mind; but cultural assets are also farmers, brewers, cafeteria workers, teachers, nurses, etc. Not everyone is plugged into the non-profit world or government agencies that help facilitate cultural continuity. The challenge for community builders and heritage advocates is in finding ways to tap every cultural asset and to help everyone in the community see the benefits of sustaining local culture. NUNU has been remarkably successful in their efforts.
Tapping cultural assets means recognizing that communities are made up of many stories. In my experience helping people tell the stories of their families in the Great Lakes region, I have seen how one or two or a dozen stories, disconnected one from the other, might seem like fragile expressions of history. There might be a reluctance to even tell them, their value questioned. Or there is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the immensity of telling the French-Canadian story. But the task of every person is not to tell our entire history or describe our entire cultural experience.
Our history is made up of narratives about family lines, genealogy being an important point of cultural affiliation for many French-Canadians and Métis people; some stories are about our connection to/disconnection from the French language, which is vital to the Franco cultures of North America; stories about famous ancestors help us understand our history more broadly. These are important elements that help us relate to the past in immediate and personal ways.
Just as important is the act of telling as many small stories as possible. There is a story to every street with a French name, a story to every Frenchtown. There is a story behind every French place name in the Great Lakes. And for those of us who no longer speak our language, French words become stories. Understanding words like mémère or tourtière is the story of family and tradition — small stories that help us reclaim language and heritage.
In St. Ignace, Michigan, the story of a local legend, Aunt Jane Goudreau, is well known. But the story of Aunt Jane is about more than one woman. In her life, she herself was dedicated to the story of her ancestors. She herself told the story of artifacts, place names, and folklore. She is the story of a storyteller, a story of stories. And this, in no small way, is the story of French-Canadian and Voyageur Métis culture in the Great Lakes.
Down the road from Fort de Baude Museum in St. Ignace, past the Ojibwe Museum and the docks, across from Manley’s Fish Market, below the storied bluffs, is Vide Poche. Hemmed in by hotels, there is something there in the tiny remnant of one of the earliest French settlements in North America. Down the lane by the water’s edge is the story of Vide Poche. Veepush. An old Frenchtown. Empty Pockets. A diamond in the rough?
How many other such stories exist that tell of ancestral places and communal memories, waiting for a Great Lakes NUNU to help bring them to light through art and music, to help families take pride in their heritage, to help small businesses thrive, to drive the revitalization so many communities seek? Tapping cultural assets and including as many people as possible in the process is what has made NUNU a success. Theirs is the story of what communities throughout the historic lands of French North America can become (are becoming…) with leadership and imagination.