From the cobblestone streets of New Orleans to the moss-laden bayous in the southeast, Creole culture has a long and fascinating history in Louisiana. Rooted primarily in French, Spanish, African and Native American ancestries, with a bit of West Indian and Caribbean thrown in, Louisiana Creoles are a uniquely American multi-ethnic group.
The meaning of the word Creole is hotly debated amongst scholars, linguists and even Creoles themselves. Among Louisianans, the ethnic label was first used in the early 18th century to distinguish first-born French and Spanish colonists who had a pure lineage but were now natives of the humid southern land. As the nation underwent significant social, political and economic changes, the meaning of Creole evolved to include native-born, mixed-race gens de couleur libres (free people of colour) and African slaves.
The cultural organisation CREOLE Inc. places primary importance on African heritage, while the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center equally emphasises French, African, Spanish, Native American and Louisiana ancestries. “We go from dark brown to blue-eyed blondes,” explains Jacqueline L. Sardie, Honorary Mayor of Voscoville, in the 2007 documentary, “Too White to Be Black, Too Black to Be White: The New Orleans Creole.”
“If you are Creole, you are considered Black. But how can I deny my Native American grandmothers on both sides, or the French?” asks Louis Metoyer, a California Creole who publishes the newspaper Bayou Talk.
New Orleans Creoles
Born into a society that valued the contributions of the gens de couleur libres, wealthy French Creoles, who were plantation owners, merchants and government officials, entered common law marriages with free and enslaved African women as well as Native Americans, primarily from the Choctaw and Mobile tribes. These open arrangements, known as plaçage, often resulted in children and created an economically diverse, three-caste society that consisted of affluent French Creoles, middle class Creoles of colour and poorer mixed-race slaves.
Because dowries, real estate or even freedom was typically granted as part of the arrangement, Creoles of colour in New Orleans were “far wealthier, more secure and more established than Blacks elsewhere in Louisiana”, note Helen Bush Caver and Mary T. Williams. Creoles of colour were highly educated, skilled craftsmen who gained professional and political power. By 1830, more than 40 per cent of free Creoles of colour owned at least one slave.
By the mid-1800s, New Orleans grew to an estimated 20,000 people who claimed a European and Afro-Caribbean ancestry. As this mixed-race culture rapidly spread across the state, the term Creole was embraced by the local communities of colour as a symbol of pride in their unique heritage. Many second-generation Creoles chose to marry amongst themselves to preserve their wealth and social status.
However, everything changed for the gens de couleur libres after the American Civil War ended in 1865 when new emancipation laws dictated a national two-caste system that classified everyone as either Black or White. Despite their historic standing in the community, Creoles of colour were forced to take a backseat politically and socially for much of the 19th century.
Southeast Louisiana Creoles
The practice of plaçage branched out from New Orleans northwest towards Baton Rouge and southwest towards St Martin Parish, which became the heart of rural Creole country. After the Civil War, independent enclaves of freed Creole slaves sprang up around the prosperous sugar cane, cotton and corn plantations that dotted the mighty Mississippi River throughout central Louisiana.
Another sizeable Creole enclave exists 300 miles northwest of New Orleans in Natchitoches Parish (pronounced nack-ih-tish). Most have settled in the lower region between Cane River and Bayou Brevelle, which is home to the Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
Working as tenant farmers, these poverty-stricken Creoles developed a bayou culture that more closely resembles the distinctive Cajuns who inhabit the swamplands. Descendants of these original Creole families continue to own the land upon which the historic plantations were built.
Louisiana Creole Culture
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, dealt a blow to the already fragile Creole culture. In the aftermath, the Creole diaspora is gravitating toward the low-lying marshlands near Natchitoches as the new cultural centre. Grassroots campaigns by groups such as the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center in Natchitoches Parish are diligently working to preserve the Creole identity so that it is not washed away with the floods.
Throughout the past four centuries, Creoles have kept many French colonial customs alive, although most have been modified to complement other ancestral practices. Intricate social clubs, such as Mardi Gras krewes, and community church activities, including the Knights of Columbus, shoulder great responsibility for maintaining these traditions.
Despite their vast differences, Louisiana Creoles share a unique French dialect that is peppered with African, Spanish, Native American and American English idioms. Although Creole French is still spoken in combination with English among elderly residents in rural areas, only a few phrases continue to make an appearance among the younger generation and in New Orleans.
Most Creoles practice a form of Catholicism that is heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean Voodoo beliefs. Powerful healers, known as traiteurs, are just as important as reciting the Our Father, offering alms to the Virgin Mary and hanging blessed magnolias, fashioned into crosses, above the front door.
Additionally, the origins of Creole cuisine are as varied as the culture itself. Into the gumbo pot, Native Americans toss sassafras, which is ground to a fine aromatic powder known as filé, and Africans stir okra to thicken the traditional French bouillabaisse.