February 23, 2013 by The Editor
French Canadian culture is not as concentrated in Michigan as it is, for example, in Louisiana. This is a notion that came up in correspondence this week with a friend who was responding to my recent post The Limits of Scholarship. As I was thinking about her observation, a blogger writing about Cajun and Creole Louisiana appeared on my radar, and the point was driven home. It’s true that in expected ways Michigan’s French Canadian culture is not a highly visible one.
It even began to worry me. I thought, perhaps I’m making this whole French Canadian culture thing out to be a bigger deal than it is. My friend wondered about how French Canadian culture is visible today, in rural Michigan for example. And numerous examples of a vibrant, living French Canadian culture did not spring to mind. We don’t have community centers. There is no annual, uniquely Michigan French Canadian holiday that brings us all together.
So it begs the question. What does contemporary French Canadian culture look like in Michigan? A short answer is that French Canadian culture is today, in large part, family centered, encompassing what might be called ‘heart and hearth’ traditions.
We have traditional foods that make their appearance at various times of the year, particularly Christmas, the New Year, and Lent. These are foods that connect us back to the earliest settlers and back to Quebec. Yet in this regard I have found that some people who have eaten traditional French Canadian fare do not realize it because it was a tradition passed down without much comment or it appears on a menu as ‘pork pie’ instead of tourtière or even ‘meat pie.’
We have a strong attachment to our deep heritage in the Great Lakes and North America. French Canadians are proud of their genealogies and have a personal understanding of our communal interconnectedness. Many of us call each other cousins because most French Canadians share some ancestry, even if its seven or eight generations back.
That sense of interconnectedness extends not just to other French Canadians, but also to Native Americans, First Nations, and Metis peoples. Anecdotal evidence from conversations, public discussion forums, and personal stories, as well as ample historical evidence, supports the belief that Great Lakes French Canadians are in fact technically metis, or as I’ve heard many people refer to themselves, Part Indian. This is a sense of ourselves and our culture that is definable and real. It is a legacy that is not just about genealogy.
It is not a stretch to say that Great Lakes French Canadians comprise a traditional culture. There is a stereotype, one that I’ve encountered as recently as this year, that French Canadians in Michigan are a bit like traditional Appalachians, to put a positive spin on it. A more negative stereotype I’ve heard is ‘white trash’ or ‘hillbilly’.
As with any stereotype, there may be a grain of truth. I prefer to say ‘hard-working, blue-collar’ folks rather than use those negative monikers as some people do. Another friend mentioned recently that she researched education levels and found that according to the 1990 census, French Canadians had one of the lowest rates of completion of higher education at 20%, with Cajuns at 15%. My belief is that this is a question of values as well as opportunity. Do we all need advanced degrees? (UPDATED: 2011 estimates show Michigan’s French Canadians with 21.4% rate of Bachelor’s degrees or higher, versus 25.3% of the general population statewide, and 28.5% of the general population nationally.)
So, what would a culture that grew out of the North American fur trade look like if it didn’t have rural living, hunting, fishing, trapping, wild harvesting, and an oral tradition as integral parts of it? The reality is, French Canadian culture is rooted in an area inhabited by the French since the 1600s and by Native Americans since time immemorial. The culture that exists today grew out of their engagement, and how it manifests today can be traced through the unfolding of history.
When French Canadian culture does appear on the public radar, it is often not recognized as such. Even the history of Detroit often does not get told back to its origins, effectively eliminating the French and Indians from the story. You might think Henry Ford founded Detroit instead of Cadillac.
It is important that people know that the lively and inspired Marche du Nain Rouge in Detroit comes from a traditional French Canadian, Detroit-based folktale. Can you imagine New Orleans’ Mardi Gras being denied its French/Cajun/Creole roots?
Smaller local customs also pass by with seemingly little awareness of their roots. The Sturgeon Shivaree on Black Lake in Cheboygan County is of a piece with the chivaree of Ontario and the ancient charivari of old Quebec and France, taking a raucous wedding ritual and turning it into hope for the renewal of a precious part of nature.
My observation is that this sort of understatement or self-consciousness is itself a manifestation of the French Canadian experience in the Great Lakes. Historian Susan Sleeper-Smith has written that the descendants of mixed French and Indian marriages living in Michigan in the early 19th century were faced with an onslaught of Anglo-American ‘pioneers’ coming to farm what they thought was vacant land.
Survival for the people already in residence meant adapting to American authority. Indians in some communities and French Metis in others “hid in plain view” behind a facade that was acceptable to the white Easterners who would quickly become the majority (See Indian Women and French Men, p8, by Susan Sleeper-Smith.)
I believe the same can be said of the early French Canadians who, in the eyes of American and British officials alike, were indistinguishable from the Indians and their metis children. They too found no profit in being different, whether it was as French Metis or French Canadian. They too began a long process of hiding in plain view that resulted in the loss of language, traditions, and in some cases even their French names.
Yet in the 200 years since the War of 1812, French Canadian culture in Michigan and the Great Lakes is still a topic of discussion. It’s still inspiring public events. It’s still bringing people together in long discussions about identity, common ancestry, tradition, and values.
Understatement however can have its repercussions. At some point you have to reclaim what is yours. It is not too late for Michigan’s French Canadians. Our stories are still there. Our foods are still prepared. Old traditions can be made new again. In fact, the optimist in me says that our time as a unique North American culture connected by kinship and history to communities from Quebec to Louisiana, is just about to get its second wind.
Souffle, souffle, la vieille