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.
Five days before my introduction to the sport of float luge, I find myself in a conversation with Guy Dubay, an older gentlemen with thick glasses and a thicker French accent, who is trying to explain to me the geosocial complexities of his name: “I go to Quebec and I present my card and they look at it like this.” He turns his nose up and gives a half-hearted sneer: “You know? A-Y?”
I don’t know, actually. The morphology of French surnames has never been a hot topic for me, but I discover that in the St. John Valley it can be a matter of pride. Guy tells me that across the border, his name is spelled Dube and some consider the -ay ending an anglicized aberration–the same as a LeBlanc changing his name to White. Even in retelling it, Guy bristles at the assertion. He tells those people he’d be happy to change the spelling just as soon as they rename the Bay of Biscay the Bay of Bisce: “Many people think that I’m turning my back on the French because I don’t have the accent [mark], but I say to them, ‘My name is older than the accent!'”
We’re speaking in front of the Tante Blanche Museum, a small history museum Guy runs out of a one-room log cabin in Madawaska. About a quarter-mile down a dirt road from here, a tiny park commemorates the spot where a band of Acadian settlers first pulled their canoes from the river in 1785. You see, not every Acadian was deported during the war. Some, like the families who would settle here, managed to slip the English dragnet and escape into the wilderness, hiding out in forests and Micmac villages until they could find a home of their own. As Guy likes to put it, “We’re descended from those who missed the boat.”
In the 229 years since those first families paddled against the current all the way from Grand Falls (in what is today New Brunswick), the St. John Valley has gotten only marginally easier to reach. An eight-hour drive from Boston and more than 300 miles northeast of Montreal, the valley snakes along Maine’s northeastern tip, an island of civilization amid an ocean of pine trees.
To get here, travelers must push ever northward, past Presque Isle, past Caribou, past countless honor-system roadside potato stands, past even the unmarked Dunkin’ Donuts/Tim Horton’s divide. For most people, the valley sits well above the imaginary latitude blazed across the maps–the one that in our minds marks the northernmost place we could possibly live without dying of exposure.
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