Table of Contents

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction

Louisiana Folklife: An Introduction, Nicholas R. Spitzer

Ethnicity, Region, Occupation and Family

Folklore and Ethnicity: Some Theoretical Considerations, Rosan A. Jordan
Creolization and Ethnicity, JosephV. Guillotte, III
South Louisiana: Unity and Diversity in a Folk Region, Nicholas R. Spitzer
The Regional Folklife of North Louisiana, Susan Roach-Lankford
Louisiana Children's Folklore, Jeanne Soileau

Folklife and Public Policy

Public Sector Attention to Folklife in the United States, Archie Green
Folklife and Public Policy In Louisiana
A Folklife Plan for the State of Louisiana, F. A. de Caro
Folklife and Education, C. Paige Gutierrez
Folklife and the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism
Office of Cultural Development: Division of the Arts, Louisiana Folklife Program, Division of Historic Preservation, Division of Archeology
Office of State Museum
Office of Tourism
Office of State Parks
Office of the State Library


1. Resources in Research, Preservation, and Presentation of Louisiana Folklife
2. Doctoral Dissertations/Masters Theses Relevant to Louisiana Folklife
3. Film and Video on Louisiana Folklife
4. Louisiana Folk Music on Sound Recordings
5. Louisiana Festivals -- Traditional and Otherwise
6. Louisiana State Documents Relevant to Folklife
7. Oral History and Folklife
8. Louisiana Folklife Legislation/Louisiana Folklife Commission
9. Louisiana Folklife Survey

Folklore And Ethnicity: Some Theoretical Considerations

By Rosan A. Jordan

This essay originally appeared in Folklife in Louisiana: A Guide to the State published by the Office of Cultural Development in 1985. This essay is provided online courtesy of the editor since the publication is out of print.

Dr. Jordan is an Associate Professor of English at LSU and has done fieldwork in Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. She has collaborated on a major exhibit of Louisiana folk crafts at LSU and recently edited a volume on women's folklore.


Definitions of folklore and folklife1 usually include some discussion of the concept of "the folk," that is, the group of people who create and use "lore." Although the term folk originally applied almost exclusively to peasants, American folklorists have insisted that any people who interact socially in groups do almost inevitably share a body of lore, no matter what class they belong to. Groups studied by American folklorists have ranged throughout the social spectrum and have included college students, ethnic groups and members of various occupations, as well as residents of isolated rural areas such as Appalachia or French Louisiana. The point here, however, is that folklore is generated and performed in groups. Focusing on the interaction of people within groups is therefore one logical approach to the study of folklore (or folklife). Such a focus leads the investigator to a specific body of material which can then be interpreted in terms of its meaning in context. On the other hand, looking at folkloric expression is also an excellent way of "defining" a group and of approaching the study of it. In other words, we might say that the members of a given group are those people who share in a certain body of traditional knowledge and behavior and that, furthermore, the study of that body of shared traditions can reveal a great deal about the group itself, just as looking at folklore as an expression of group concerns can provide a basis for interpreting the folklore. The folklorist might begin by asking questions such as: What stories do members of this group tell? What proverbs, riddles, or rhymes do they use? How do they celebrate holidays, births, marriages, etc,? While exploring these issues, the folklorist also seeks answers to a more difficult set of questions: What do these traditions reveal about the group? What view of the world is reflected in this group's folklore? What do these traditions do for the people who maintain them?

Many Faces by A. L. Waud. Historic New Orleans Collection.

From the folklorist's point of view, then, the most interesting function of a group is to provide a context from the expression of shared knowledge, or lore. People who participate in a group know certain things in common and look at the world from a similar perspective, and their common concerns are reflected in their traditional expressions. Moreover, individuals in the group may answer for themselves the question "Who am I?" in terms of the groups they belong to, i.e., "I am a Cajun," or "I am an oil worker," or "I am a Catholic." That is, the group may have an identificational function in offering its members a sense of shared identity based on a common factor such as occupation, ethnicity, region, religion, neighborhood, etc. When we start to look at individual people, however, the question of identity is complicated by the fact that in this country an individual may, and usually does, belong simultaneously to more than one group, and some groups will obviously be more significant to him than others. A general rule of thumb is: the greater the extent to which membership in a group determines 1) who a person interacts with. 2) his concept of who he is, and 3) his cultural outlook, the greater the significance of the group might be said to be for him. Furthermore, for a given individual, being part of a particular group may be influential in one of these areas and less influential in another area. For example, he might take pride in identifying with a certain group, but the group might nevertheless play only a small part in determining his social networks or his cultural outlook. That is a person who enjoys identifying himself as, say, Irish (especially on certain ritual or holiday occasions) may nevertheless marry outside the ethnic group and form friendships mostly outside the group. Another individual, on the other hand, might stay within the social networks of an ethnic group but consciously eschew many of its cultural forms and draw only minimally on the group for his sense of identity. This partial rejection of the group and its culture is a common (but not the only possible) reaction of individuals who are caught by circumstances (such as family ties, limited means, or skin color)within a group which they feel offers them low status because of negative stereotypes associated with it (Jordan 1975). For example, until fairly recently Cajun French speakers were sometimes pressured to feel ashamed of their language and culture and some individuals undoubtedly internalized negative perceptions of the group and reacted by attempting to dissociate themselves from it. Many deliberately refrained from teaching their children Cajun French.

Marie Billiot Dean with her students at Grand Caillou School, Terrebonne Parish, 1982. Photograph: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

In general, however, ethnic groups are among the most basic and important of the groups Americans participate in. The popular "melting pot" theory of American immigration notwithstanding, it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that ethnicity remains an important force in the lives of Americans, even those who belong to groups which have been in country for several generations and which are often considered to have been assimilated into the mainstream of American culture.2 Such groups often cling to certain selective cultural traits which thus become symbolic of ethnic identity. Language, food, music and religion are examples of cultural features which, because of their symbolic associations, often provide individuals within ethnic groups a means of expressing ethnic identity and of demonstrating their commonality with other members of the group. Especially important among the cultural forms which symbolize and express ethnicity is folklore (or folklife): tales, songs, crafts, foodways, holiday rituals, and other traditions.3

As in other groups, then, members of ethnic groups interact together and share cultural concerns, which are expressed in the group's traditions. Like other groups, the ethnic group offers its members a sense of shared identity which is symbolized by some of its cultural expressions and which individuals may draw upon in varying degrees. In the case of ethnic groups, this identity is based on common ancestry, either real or fictitious. Physical features (such as color or physiognomy), however, are of only secondary importance in actually determining an individual's ethnicity. More important is his participation in a shared cultural outlook and in ethnic social networks, together with how he identifies himself and how others identify him. What happens is that, like the cultural expressions mentioned above, physical traits associated with the group often develop into important symbols of ethnic identity. That actual ancestry and physical traits are not primary determiners of ethnicity is demonstrated by the fact that ethnic boundaries have been known to shift with a change in historical circumstances. In much of south Louisiana, for example, many people of diverse national origins today call themselves Cajuns: a French spelling of non-French surnames may serve to express that Cajun identity. What is important here is not actual blood lines, but how people identify themselves and how others identify them (see Spitzer 1977). Of course a sense of identity derives also from the fact that those who have been absorbed into the group share in its cultural concerns and expressions.

Immigrants from a number of East European countries, to give another example, have settled in communities in Livingston Parish in southeastern Louisiana. Today, many members of these communities--even people whose names give evidence of divergent ancestry--identify themselves specifically as Hungarian-Americans and celebrate that identity on various festival occasions (see Degh 1977-78). Obviously, however, immigrant groups in this country have adapted to the American cultural environment, and the traditions they maintain, as well as the identity they celebrate in exercising those traditions, are no longer identical to the traditions and identity the immigrants brought with them; instead, the traditions which survive today are those which have proved useful and suitable--almost certain in altered form--in the new environment. Moreover, the process is ongoing; cultural forms evolve, new ones are created, and old ones are forgotten in response to changing conditions, influences, needs, etc. Various historical circumstances and the nature of the host culture into which the group moves are important factors in this process. Thus an ethnic group should not be considered merely an updated version of a former immigrant group. It may have as its source one or even several immigrant groups, but all that is necessary is a sense of common ancestry (usually beyond the bounds of a single family) which sets the group apart from others within the national culture. Using this definition, Anglo-American whites and Afro-Americans would properly be described as ethnic groups, although, because they are so large and diversified, subgroups within these groups based on class or region would probably represent more meaningful entities in terms of their influence on the lives of individuals.

The history of the immigration or migration and synthesis of many ethnic groups into New Orleans illustrates very well the complexities of culture change as a dynamic process. George Reinecke describes how group after group, arriving in New Orleans, interacted with the already established French-dominated culture. Some groups were more readily absorbed than others, but each group arrived with its unique characteristics, adjusted in its own way, and made its own contributions to the cultural landscape of New Orleans, creating in the process what Reinecke argues is a distinctive "New Orleans ethnicity" to which all its subgroups have contributed and which produces "differences in custom, outlook and values when compared with the remainder of the United States..." (1978: 25). Whether or not the group consciousness of New Orleanians should properly be called ethnicity, Reinecke's description does illustrate the nonstatic nature of group boundaries and identities and of culture change in response to the new influences.6

Frequently outsiders may think of an ethnic group as fairly homogeneous, but insiders recognize differences within the group based on class, region, urban versus rural residence, or generation. Texas Chicanos, for example, see many cultural differences between themselves and New Mexicans or Californians, and "bayou Cajuns" differ in some cultural traits from "prairie Cajuns."

Because outsiders and insiders frequently have different perceptions of a group, it is necessary when speaking of ethnic folklore to make several distinctions. First it is useful to distinguish between folklore which is used only within the group and that which is also used with outsiders, at festivals or at other events which serve as public presentations, or celebrations of ethnic identity. Then again, we may distinguish between group folklore which is used primarily in private spheres (as part of family and religious life) and that which is used in public (but in-group) spheres (at clubs, dances, etc.). Some folkloric expressions may be reserved entirely for use in private or at least with insiders; some may be used in a variety of situations but may carry a different meaning relative to the occasion and audience. For example, ethnic food may have different associations for an individual when it is served at home than when it is sold at a public festival (see Rikoon 1980). More esoteric forms of folklore (in-group humor or slang, for example) may be understood only by insiders and function to affirm an individual's sense of belonging to the group by virtue of his insider's knowledge (see Jordan 1981). Cultural expressions used in public presentations of identity--particularly when the audience includes outsiders--are apt to be very carefully and selectively chosen. Foodways and music often function as positive assertions of ethnic identity and of allowed ethnic difference when performed in a public arena (foodways and music being two areas where people are most readily allowed to be "different" in America). Sometimes an ethnic group may become so associated with a region that symbolic expressions of its identity become significant even for individuals outside the group, and the group itself becomes almost symbolic of regional identity. For example, crawfish have in recent years become a symbol of Cajun identity, and both crawfish and Cajuns are associated in the popular mind with south Louisiana as a region, even though Cajuns are by no means the only important ethnic group in the area (see Gutierrez 1984).

Finally, we must also distinguish between folklore used by a group and folklore about the group which is used by outsiders. The latter will reflect a stereotype which group members will consider simplified, at least partially if not completely wrong, and possibly offensive (the watermelon-eating Negro, the moonshine-making "Hillbilly," or the stupendously dumb Pole, for example). The same stories about a group may, in fact, be told by both outsiders and insiders, but their meanings will obviously be different in each instance. The stereotype of a group reflected in the folklore about it may actually be one which its members enjoy--at least part of the time--the accuracy or inaccuracy of the stereotype not being the issue here. Louisiana Cajuns, for example, may be able to enhance a social occasion by reminding themselves that as Cajuns they are especially gifted in knowing how to have a good time; or an individual who works long and hard and bears many responsibilities may nevertheless enjoy thinking of himself as a carefree and fun-loving Cajun and he may when with outsiders temporarily conform to their expectations, even if such behavior is atypical. In any case, stereotypes of a group held by outsiders affect the group's image of itself and the nature of the identification it offers its members. When being identified as a member of a given ethnic group brings with it a low status and discriminatory treatment, some individuals will dissociate themselves from the group insofar as they are able to do so. Nevertheless, the positive psychological function of ethnicity as a source of identity in a large, sometimes bleak industrialized society is significant enough (at least for many people) to partially offset any disadvantages that that identity might bring along with it. For those people remaining within the group, a negative made may even be turned around and laughed at when, for example, jokes which reflect a negative image of the group are told within the group itself; in the right context, these jokes, in effect, turn the tables and satirize the stereotype rather than ridiculing the group identity. The message they carry is "See, we know what "they" think about us and we can laugh about it because we know ourselves and we understand the complexity of the issues which form the background for the behavior "they' are oversimplifying. And besides, the pain of it all is lessened when we can laugh about things."

Attitudes prevalent in the larger society thus have an effect on the dynamics of the groups within it. Prejudicial attitudes toward the group may weaken group ties for some individuals, especially if increasing status by leaving the group is possible for them. And when an individual's interaction with the group becomes minimal for whatever reason, then he will become increasingly an outsider, who ceases to share in the folkloric expressions of the group. Other individuals, on the other hand, may find their commitment to the group strengthened by a sense of shared suffering or a common fate. The more intensely people interact and share common interests and emotions, the more folkloric behavior they are apt to have in common. (Conversely, sharing traditions can of course strengthen feelings of belonging.) Thus questions of identity, social networks, and such cultural forms are clearly interrelated and overlapping, and as a configuration, these forces play a role in the shaping of ethnic folk traditions.


1. As used in this essay, the term folklore is largely synonymous with the general use of the term folklife in the rest of this manual.

2. See Abrahams and Kalcik (1978) for a discussion of the recent revival of ethnic consciousness among diverse ethnic groups.

3. See Kalcik and Hawes (1976) for a discussion of the Smithsonian's public presentation of American ethnic culture at its annual folklife festival.

4. Important sociological analyses of ethnicity as a concept include Gordon (1964); Shibutani and Kwan (1965); and Glazer and Moynihan (1975).

5. For further discussion of how ethnic groups reshape old world class and culture differences in the new world, see Barth (1969): and Klyhuascz (1972).

6. George B. Tindall (1976) suggests that Southerners as a subgroup in the United States should be regarded as a kind of ethnic group: likewise, John Shelton Reed (1972) notes that the concept of being Southern functions like ethnicity in determining social networks, cultural forms, and identity.

7. The important distinction between the folklore of the group and folklore about the group circulated by outsiders is elaborated by William Hugh Jansen (1959).


Abrahams, Roger D., and Susan J. Kalcik. "Folklore and Cultural Pluralism." In Folklore in the Modern World. Richard M. Dorson, ed. The Hague. 1978.

Barth, Frederik. ed. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. Little, Brown, Boston, 1969.

Bianco, Carla. "Migration and Urbanization of a Traditional Culture: An Italian Experience." In Folklore in the Modern World. Richard M. Dorson, ed. The Hague, 1978.

Danielson, Larry. ed. "Studies in Folklore and Ethnicity." Western Folklore 36(1)(1977

Degh, Linda. "Approaches to Folklore Research Among Immigrant Group s." Journal of American Folklore. 79(1966):551-556.

____. "Grape-Harvest Festival of Strawberry Farmers: Folklore or Fake?" Ethnologia Europaea. 10(1977-78):114-131.

Glazer, Nathan and Daniel P. Moynihan. Ethnicity: Theory and Experience. With Corinne Saposs Schilling. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Gordon. Milton M. Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins. Oxford University Press, New York, 1964.

Gutierrez, C. Paige. "Social and Symbolic Uses of Ethnic/Regional Foodways: Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana." In Foodways in the United States: A Matrix for Ethnic and Regional Identity. Kay Mussell, and Linda Keller Brown, eds. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1984.

Jansen, William Hugh. "The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore." Fabula: Journal of Folktale Studies. 2(1959):205-211.

Jordan. Rosan A. "Ethnic Identity and the Lore of the Supernatural." Journal of American Folklore. 88(1975):370-382.

____. "Tension and Speech Play in Mexican-American Folklore." In "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore. Roger D. Abrahams and Richard Bauman, eds. University of Texas Press, Austin. 1981.

Kalcik, Susan J., and Bess Lomax Hawes. "In Celebration of Ethnicity." International Education and Cultural Exchange. 12(1)(1976):9-14.

Klymasz. Robert. "Ukrainian Folklore in Canada: An Immigrant Complex in Transition." Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, 1972.

Paredes, Americo. "Tributaries to the Mainstream: The Ethnic Groups." In Our Living Traditions. Tristram Potter Coffin, ed. Basic Books, New York, 1968.

Reed, John Shelton. The Enduring South: Sub-cultural Persistence in Mass Society. Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass., 1972.

Reinecke, Georde. "The National and Cultural Groups of New Orleans, 1718-1918." In New Orleans Ethnic Cultures. John Cooke, ed. Committee on Ethnicity in New Orleans. University of New Orleans, 1978.

Rikoon, J. Sanford. "Norwegian Cooking in American Kitchens." Center for Southern Folklore. 3(2)(1980):13.

Shibutani, Tamotsu, and Kian M. Kwan. Ethnic Stratification: A Comparative Approach. Macmillan, New York, and London, 1965.

Spitzer, Nicholas R. "Cajuns and Creoles: The French Gulf Coast." Southern Exposure. 5(2- 3)(1977):140-155.

Tindall, George B. The Ethnic Southerners. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1976.