Acadian Heritage | ‘Nous Sommes Encore Ici'
In the northern reaches of Maine, the people of Madawaska celebrate their Acadian heritage with a festival that is equal parts party and affirmation.
The flag around the girl’s neck billows crazily in the wind. The banner is the stately tricolor of France, with a golden star superimposed over the blue, and the girl has it tied around her shoulders like a cape. Her teenaged face is fixed in an expression of joyful terror–eyes wide, but lips smiling, and her hair blown to tangles. She looks like a kid on a roller coaster, which isn’t far from the truth. The float we’re riding took the hill much faster than any of us had anticipated. Its designers had neglected to add seats or guardrails, so the dozen or so of us back there are clinging to whatever we can, with one eye on the road below us and the other on the border station we’re about to barrel into.
The walls of Maine’s St. John Valley slope steeply at the crossing in Madawaska, and we’re riding several tons of screeching metal right into Canada. But as we careen by the old paper mill, something funny happens. People start laughing, then shouting. Mischievous grins spread across an already mischievous-looking crew. Everyone aboard is decked out in some kind of silly garb–wigs, beads, floppy hats, each one painted with the reds, whites, blues, and golds of Acadia. In their free hands (the ones not hanging on for dear life) everyone is holding pots and pans and noisemakers of all kinds.
A young boy shouts at the top of his lungs, “We’re all going to die!” But of course we’re not. This is a tintamarre, and a tintamarre isn’t about death; it’s about life. It’s about a tiny community raising a joyful noise in the piney wilderness of northern Maine and shouting to anyone who’ll listen: “We survived! We are still here!”
In 1755 the French colony of Acadia was wiped off the map–not just conquered, but erased. British troops swept through what we now know as Canada’s maritime provinces, burning Acadian villages and shipping their inhabitants against their will all across the Atlantic world. Some wound up in the 13 American Colonies, others in France or in English internment camps. Many would later relocate to Louisiana and become the colorful Cajuns of the swamp parishes. In a few short years, the fabric of Acadian culture, woven over the course of 150 brutal winters on the Canadian frontier, was torn apart, its people scattered to the wind.
Almost 100 years later, New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured this tragedy in his epic Evangeline. His heroine wanders North America “bleeding, barefooted over the shards and thorns of existence” from one refugee community to the next in search of her lost betrothed. Like Acadia, the lovers were not fated to be reunited in this life; when she finally finds him, he’s on his deathbed. Of her homeland, Longfellow eulogizes, “naught but tradition remains.”
But sometimes tradition is enough.
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