Creole Stories in the Oral Tradition
We took a mini-break to Lafayette, Louisiana, last weekend. I’ve wanted to explore Louisiana for a while, but the pandemic has limited travel. We decided on a weekend trip to outdoor museums in LaFayette, and LaFayette did not let us down. We visited the Acadian Village on Saturday and then spent Sunday at Vermillionville, both were excellent and filled with history.
My favourite, though, was Vermillionville. It focused on the Attakapas region sharing housing and stories through the end of the 1800s, focusing on Native American, Acadian, Creole, and people of African descent’s lives. We read our way through the exhibits, each focused on a different timeframe and building style. We spent the morning there and stayed for lunch and a live band. With my husband’s belly filled at the buffet, we finally made our way to the gift shop. I love gift shops. It provides justifiable book purchasing opportunities. And this time, I picked up Louisiana Folktales: Lapin, Bouki, and Other Creole Stories in French Dialect and English Translation.
My favourite of the tales are the stories with Compair Bouki and Compair Lapin. They remind me of Raven and Coyote stories I shared previously. Lapin is always hungry and does his best to trick his friends and steal their food. Fortunately for him, his friends, even when they die, they are resurrected for another tale.
Compair Lapin, whose tales we know as the Tales of Brer Rabbit, were tales shared by the French-speaking African-Creole emancipated Bambara people who arrived in Louisiana between 1719 and 1749. Interestingly, in Senegal, the tale “Leuk le Lievre,” was almost word-for-word the same tale as “The Elephant & The Whale,” also found in Louisiana Folktales. It is a wonderful example of how important oral tales are in culture to have not changed after separation for possibly hundreds of years.
They have used animals in tales throughout much of folklore. Each animal is an archetype for character traits, lazy, weak, naïve, or cunning. In the Creole tales, Lapin, the rabbit is cunning and thinks with his stomach. He is looking for a free meal or a way to outwit the other creatures. They connect the animal species to a character trait; a metaphor for human behaviour. Whether a conflict of values or competition between opposing sides. The ending could be a death of a character, but it was okay as storytellers remade them for the next adventure. In the next tale, the other character might lose. There was no assured winner, such as in life, and friends do not always get along, but sometimes play tricks on one another.
Compair Lapin, Brother Rabbit, is a cunning character, but he makes friendship look hard. While part 1 of the book was about animal tales, they filled part 2 with folktales. Tales mostly involving the vain, the jealous, the foolish, and magical stories passed down through the generations.
The one that stole my heart is “The Little Finger” a story retold from a girl enslaved in Africa who was later sold and sent to Louisiana. It is a sorrowful tale of life and the magic of the singing bones. I have included excerpts below, beware they wrote the original document in 1895, so the spelling, punctuation, and grammar is from that period.
Anthology of Louisiana Literature for more stories here
New Orleans African American Museum found here
Response: The Journal of Popular and American Culture found here
Vermilllionville found here