Fiddlehead Focus


April 21, 2010 - April 8, 2016

'We have been separated far too long': Acadian roots thrive despite 18th century horrors

Published July 6, 2015

FORT KENT, Maine - For 64 year-old Learlin Bellard of Louisiana, the reality of what his Acadian ancestors suffered as a result of the Great Deportation of 1755 hit home during a visit to the University of Maine at Fort Kent Acadian Archives. The guitarist for the Cajun band La Recolte and fellow band members met with Acadian Archives Director Lise Pelletier while on a musical tour of the St. John Valley.

La Recolte, a family band whose members are all Acadian musicians from Louisiana, met with Pelletier on July 1 and shared stories of their common cultural experiences. The meeting between the musicians and the educator and activist for Acadian rights proved enlightening for all involved.

This is La Recolte's second visit to the Valley. They first traveled to the area last summer during the 2014 World Acadian Congress, for which Pelletier served as treasurer. However, this was the first meeting between the band and Pelletier.

Learlin, whose son Shane Bellard is the accordion player for La Recolte, said that speaking French in Louisiana was not only considered shameful during his childhood, but punishable by violence. As a result, he did not teach his son to speak French, for fear that he would suffer the same reprisals.

“My primary language was French. I didn't know English until I went to school,” Learlin said. “I was told I should be ashamed and embarrassed of speaking the French language.”

“This is the same thing we went through here,” Pelletier sympathetically replied. “It hurts your identity.”

“I'll tell you what hurts more is a slap on the back of the head when you continue to speak French,” Learlin spoke of his public school experience.

Shane ultimately learned to speak French through time spent with his grandparents, and developed an indestructible sense of his Acadian identity as well.

“What's particular about us, is that like you, our ancestors survived the Deportation,” Pelletier said. “I don't mince words, it is ethnic cleansing. History through British documents proves that the intent was to separate families and make it impossible for members of a community and families getting back together.”

Pelletier displayed a map depicting the route of the Acadians during the Deportation, which also traced the journey the band members' ancestors were forced to take from Canada to Louisiana in the late 18th century. Shane said he has a copy of the exact map Pelletier shared with the group hanging in his own dining room, demonstrating that Acadian pride has defied generations of forced assimilation as well as geographical constraints.

Pelletier pointed out that one UMFK student from Haiti approached her with questions about why people of the St. John Valley have surnames similar to those of people in his country of birth. It turns out that during the Deportation some Acadians made their way to Haiti, and although many moved on to the southern part of the United States, some stayed behind in the island country and married.

Shane added that following the 2010 earthquake which hit Haiti and reportedly killed more than 100,000 people, he traveled to the devastated nation to help out as a paramedic, which is his day job. “I had opportunity to go and provide some medical relief. I came in through Santa Domingo and two little girls kept following me. They asked if I was Haitian. I asked why they thought that and (through an interpreter the girls said) 'because your speech gives it away,'” Bellard said.

“That tells me how identity and elements of identity resist assimilation,” Pelletier said with pride.

The discussion at the Acadian Archives took a more humorous turn when Shane Bellard relayed how, when he and the rest of the band visited the Deportation Cross at Grand Pre last year, they exacted a measure of revenge for some of the abuses their Acadian ancestors endured at the hands of the English. “The right of way to get to the Cross was owned by an Englishman, which was kind of ironic. There was an apple tree on his property and I said to myself, 'This old Acadian, I'm gonna take one of his apples.' We all took one.”

Another commonality can be seen in the houses built by Acadians who settled in Louisiana following the Deportation. According to members of La Recolte, there are at least a few Louisiana homes built with A-framed roofs meant to deflect snow. “They expected harsh winters but the winter never came. Well it came, but the snow never came,” Shane Bellard said.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, both Bellards and La Recolte fiddle player / vocalist Joel Breaux gave an impromptu performance of some Cajun songs in French right in the Archives.

“I'm really hopeful this will go beyond occasional visits. We need to get together and do something official. I know you have a lot of friends here and not just about the music,” Pelletier said during the meeting at the Archives.

Following the meeting, La Recolte drummer Chris Lafleur said. “We would like to work towards a push to bring more St. John Valley Acadians on the radar with South Louisiana Acadians, and and vice-versa. For me, anyone who embraces the Acadian culture (whether it) is through a genuine interest or other family relations is a Cajun to me,” he said.

Shane Bellard agreed. "We have taken it upon ourselves to spread the news of our experiences in Maine to our Louisiana Acadians. I feel that it is our responsibility to do this. We would like to keep the lines of communication open between us and Lise, and if possible, even become 'ambassadors' to bridge the gap between Louisiana Acadians and Maine Acadians. It has to be done for our future generations to experience all that we have experienced, and to take the torch of cultural preservation for future generations. We have been separated far too long. It's time to reunite with all of our people."

This article appeared in Volume VI Issue 28 - July 8, 2015 - Wednesday edition of the Fiddlehead Focus