Do you want to know about Acadian culture?
Just ask Géraldine Chassé

Originally published in "Aroostook Magazine" 
Dick Harrison, former editor/publisher/interviewer

AM:  Aroostook Magazine
GC:  Géraldine Chassé
 
 

AM.: Were you born and raised in Aroostook County?
GC: In St. Francis, Maine up-river.

AM.:  In a French Acadian family?
GC: No. Pelletier is a nice French Canadian name, but I have a lot of Acadian grandmothers, my great-grandmother on the Pelletier side was a Daigle; I go way back to the original founders of the area.

AM.:  Explain briefly who the Acadians are, where they came from, and what's the relationship between them Acadians and the Cajuns in Louisiana.
GC: Okay.  The Acadian came to North America--to New France--at St. Croix Island in 1604.  They tried establishing a permanent colony because fisherman and trappers were coming back and forth between Europe and the New World.  Ami I going too far back?

AM.:  St. Croix Island is where?
GC: It's in the St. Croix River between Calais, Maine and St. Stephen, N.B., [Canada].  But the colony started and stopped and started and stopped, finally, to make a long story short, these people we call Acadians lived and moved across the bay into Grand Pré and into Nova Scotia which was the original Acadia.  They lived a beautiful, peaceful life, The original families came around 1632, the families and the children.  These people are the basis for our Acadian culture.  The French Canadian, on the other hand, came in 1607 and opened up Québec.  Now you will find different names from the Acadians and the French Canadian.  Now we take a great deal of pride in our Acadian culture up here [Aroostook County, St. John Valley], because we're a pocket, an isolated pocket of remnants of a 17th century culture.  Our French shows you that and some of our customs; like the children used to say, their dad still had a foot in the medieval ages because he was old-fashioned.  Now the ŽCajuns, oh yes, I wanted to go back to the deportation, so anyway, whenever France and England sneeze at one another in Europe, naturally it was felt in New France or in the New World.  So Acadia went from one country to another, but the Acadians were stubborn, they refused to be taken in by the British even though the British had conquered Acadia.  What happens in 1755, the British owned Acadian after many wars, we won't get into that. They wanted to get rid of the French people because they thought they were rabble-rousers, so they started deporting them from 1755 to, oh, a good 20 years.  Some of these people were put in ships and, of course, deported.  Some of them went through the woods.  Our ancestors didn't get on the ships; they were refugees, they went up to the French territory in Canada and eventually found their way down there.  Now the Cajuns, on the other hand, some of them were deported and sent back to Europe, some of them were sent down along the eastern seaboard by the British through deportation.  A lot of these Acadians found their way to Louisiana, the West Indies, some of theme even went down to the Falkland Island; they were scattered all over the place.  An obstinate, determined ethnicity that did not want to be assimilated.  So a lot of these Cajuns knew about Louisiana being a French territory, so they thought they would be received there.  Those that were sent to Europe longed to return to New France because they had had such an idyllic life in Acadia, or they just hung around there and the French people who were there, they weren't any better to them than the British had been.  But Spanish ships were hired and they brought some of these Acadians originally to Louisiana.  And, of course, there's the corrupt pronunciation of "Acadian" for "Cajun."  Now,  I've been down there a couple of times and I'm going down there next month, I just want to do it at my own pace this time.  I had been with the Park Service and I had been with the college.

AM.:  Acadians and Cajuns are originally from New France, from Acadia, which comprises parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and parts of Maine.
GC: That's right.  And you'll have pockets of Acadians and Cajuns in just about every state in the Union.

AM.:  So the people in Upper St. John Valley originally lived in New France, were driven out by the British, and traveled up to St. John Valley to what is now northern Maine.
GC: The Madawaska Territory.  The St. John Valley was the Madawaska Territory.

AM.:  You've been involved for 30 or more years in preserving and rediscovering the local culture, the Acadian culture in Aroostook County.  Where did your efforts begin?
GC: (laughter) I love this part!  First of all, I had lived in New York City five years.  I was a school teacher, my sister was a physiotherapist, my other sister was a nurse, and the three of us decided to see what it was like.  We lived in New York and then we decided there were greener pastures beyond the Mississippi, so I've been in the southwestern states; I love the southwest I took a semester at the University of Arizona in Albuquerque because it was a border town and wanted to live there and I didn't want to waste my time.  And then we ended up in California.  My two sisters stayed in California, but I had planted my roots in the Valley.  I had taught school, a country school, and my mother used to say "Tu a planté des racines, you've planted roots."  Well, my other two sisters, they went to school, they took off and never returned.  But I was lonesome for the river and I was lonesome for the little churches on both sides of the river and I was just lonesome for the St. John Valley.  So I came back and that's when I met my husband, Ernie. That's a long story.  Well, anyway, when I met married Ernie, I used to look out my kitchen window and I used to see this white wooden cross out on the flat and I would say, "Ernie," of course Ernie was only interested in potatoes.  I would look out the window and I'd say, "Quoi, c'est ça, Ernie?" and he would say, Ah, c'est des français qui sont logé une première maison, les premières français."  The first French people.  So having traveled around the country and having always been curious about historical places, whether it was in Texas or in Albuquerque or in New York, I couldn't believe the people of the area had absolutely no desire to learn about themselves.  They were a little embarrassed, so I can see where the Anglo influence was, a carry-over probably from the deportation. They were embarrassed about their French names, they were embarrassed about their French accents.  When I married Ernie in '51 and I saw the cross there, nothing was ever mentioned about the Acadians or the first people.  So I read up a little bit and I was involved with youth work and I sued to take my 4-H-ers down there and we'd discuss what Acadia was all about and all this sort of thing.  Well, in '69 Madawaska was getting ready for it's centennial, and so single-handed I took out the old Underwood typewriter, which skipped letters and everything, and I looked around to organize a society; we needed some kind of a vehicle to work out of.

AM.:  To mark this 100th anniversary?
GC: Yes, because nobody was making an effort.  I always have been interested in history no matter where I was, so I contacted the Maine State Library and they referred me to mainly the historical societies and all the people involved in the preservation of culture in the State of Maine.  So one thing led to another.  We organized the Madawaska Historical Society in '68.  It was so funny.  They recommended we get a competent attorney to incorporate.  The "authorities" said, "incorporate right away" because you never meet so many contrary people who are interested in preserving culture--we all believe we're right, you know!  So we organized in 1968.  We're over 31 years old now, we're still going strong, we've done a lot of work, a little museum. In '78, ten years later, we stared our family reunions, Acadian Festival.

AM.:  So you were involved in the establishment of the Madawaska Historical Society, you were involved in the establishing the tradition of the annual Acadian Festival and Family Reunion.
GC:  I wrote columns to local papers for whatever family happened to be, and so one thing led to another and then I got involved in publications.  There was very little available on publications.  We had "L'Histoire de Madawaska" par Rev. Thomas Albert, which was fine.  A lot of controversy surrounded it because it was not documented and all that, but little by little, I learned over the years.  Now I handle publications through this area, local artists, local writers.  And so when Ernie became sick, I had to discontinue all these things because he was in a wheel chair and I was not going to put him in a nursing home.  And then in my great, big house, if I couldn't find a little corner for him,  I'd have felt awfully guilty.  So he had a good two years here at home, and the whole family was involved.  I had five boys and one daughter.  I wanted some children, but I didn't intend to populate the world by myself, but it looked pretty bad for awhile.  Being an old school teacher, I had this grandiose fantasy that all my children would be PhD's; I got two that graduated from college; the others all started and quit except my son, Jim.  He was a hippy!  He's still got his long hair.  He has his garbage business in Arizona--he's done very well!

AM.:  Let's get back to your involvement with Acadian culture and history and bringing it back to the fore.  Before we started, I asked you to list some of the things you've been involved with.  you mentioned the University of Maine at Fort Kent Archives, every historical society in the St. John Valley, The Acadian Heritage Council, the Acadian Cultural Exchange of Northern Maine÷
GC:  I was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to serve on the Maine Acadian Preservation Commission.

AM.:  What does that involve?
GC:  That was through the Park Service.  Federally funded.  I was one of the founding directors.  [Senator George] Mitchell, [Senator Bill] Cohen and [Maine Speaker of the House] John Martin got the ball rolling that we have a unique culture up here that was worth preserving and we worked on that for three years.  It did give us quite a shot in the arm.  It made us known nationally. But like I said, the Park Service had its own agenda and it lacked the soul and the feeling that the local people had about their own culture.  It became too academic.  I may be wrong in saying this, but I imagine you have to go by priorities, I'm an old school teacher, I'm a college graduate, BUT I believe in the soul of anything, and this culture of ours definitely has a very strong living soul, a spirit.  Now, I don't know if you were familiar with Blackie Cyr, Claude; he served on the Commission with me.  The Park Service would have all these professionals out, archeologist, anthropologists from all over to come over and tell us who we were.  And, of course, the Acadian Party in Canada is political, now I want to emphasize that.  Here, ours was strictly cultural.  It was home-based, it was fireside, it was kitchen table, our religion, our language.  It's up to us dans le foyer to preserve this.  I serve as a consultant at the UMFK's Acadian Archives and I love the head of the Archives, Lisa Ornstein; Lisa's a dear friend of mine, so is Nick Hawes; nice young couple, but they are from away.  Very capable.

AM.:  The UMFK Archives; can you explain what that is?
GC:  They're doing the same thing only with monies, tax monies, through academia to preserve our culture, and they do!

AM.:  Are they overlapping, are they duplicating, are they each doing different things?  It sounds like you're involved with all of them.
GC:  Well, the Heritage Council is a spin-off from the Acadian Preservation Commission which was administered through the Park Service.  We were in operation for three years and we got a million dollars and all of that, to pay outsiders to come and tell us who we were.  After the Commission was let go, the Park Service stepped back, and we formed the Acadian Heritage Council.  On that council, we have people from the community, it's not these specialists.  I refer to academia, but that encompasses a lot of layers.  The Council itself, the state, the communities are involved, all the towns in the Valley are involved, all the Chambers of Commerce are involved, all the historical societies are involved, people like me.  I'm the Acadian Cultural Exchange.

AM.:  That's another÷
GC:  That's a private thing.  I make publications available.

AM.:  You organized the Acadian Cultural Exchange of northern Maine; that's your project?
GC:  That's my final one.

AM.:  For now.
GC:  For now.  Well, at my age I don't know if I'll be getting much into any more, but my children are interested.  For a long time they kept referring to "mama's Histerical Society."

AM.:  What is the Acadian Cultural Exchange?
GC:  It's a consulting organization, really.  I don't actually do the research, but if you want to do genealogy, I can tell you who to contact.  I have people from all over that come see me.  There's hardly a day I don't have a call or someone.  This week, I've had somebody from West Paris, Maine.  I had a place from upstate New York and I had someone from San Clemente, California come in.  They come in.  I work with the Archives.  Now whenever Nick and Lisa need something, guess who they call?  The old shoe.  Yesterday, Nick called, wanted to know if I knew of any bus tours going to the Acadian World Congress?

AM.:  The Congress?
GC:  Yeah, in Louisiana, next month.  "Le congrès mondial."  The Acadian World Congress.  They had one in N.B., Canada in the past [1994].

AM.:  Is this the same as the World Francophone Congress?  There was one in Moncton last year.  Is that a broader-based conference?
GC:  This is a continuation of that.

AM.:  And this is just for Acadians or is it for all French-speaking people?
GC:  No, it's considered Acadian, but francophones go because somewhere up there we all have these Acadian grandmothers tucked away, you know.  So, anyway, Nick called and he said somebody wanted to know if anybody was taking a tour to the Congress.  Well, I had looked into it myself, but at my age, I don't want to be on a bus for four days to go to Louisiana, so I'm flying out.  So I told Nick, I gave him some tours out of N.B. and the prices and everything.  It's little things like that.  The Acadian Exchange does a little bit of everything.

AM.:  You're an information resource for anything to do with Acadian culture and heritage.
GC:  In the Valley, yes.

AM.:  This sounds like a one-person operation.  Are you the Acadian Cultural Exchange of Northern Maine?
GC:  My daughter and my son are involved.  We're not an organization; we're not tax exempt.  you know I have this beautiful old house, which I don't know what I'm going to do with, and after you see my library and you'll see the volume of traffic I have here, I've been considering making a research center.  Work with the Madawaska Historical Society and the Acadian Archives.  I don't know what I'm going to do because this is one of the oldest houses in the area.  We are on historical ground.  We gave the property for the museum and the land down at the railroad track, the Society bought where the cross is and all that from Ernie and me.  So we are a historical site even though we are semi-commercial now.  Let's see what the future holds.

AM.:  So far we've been jumping around from the Acadian Archives, the Historical Society, the Heritage Council, the Exchange.  Let's focus on the Acadian Cultural Exchange of Northern Maine.  You say it encompasses all these other projects and programs.  What do you mean by encompassing the programs, they don't necessarily fall under the Exchange?
GC:   They do not fall under the Exchange, but they come to me.  These organizations come to me.  Let's say it's a family reunion or the Acadian Festival or it it's a recipe for Acadian food, they come to me to check out.  I even help adoptees find their biological parents; I've already found seven.  I work with the police department, the town office, the Chamber of Commerce, they send them:  "Go see Mme. Chassé."  So, you see, this Exchange includes a lot of things.

AM.:  At first, calling this an "exchange" left me with the impression that it is similar to a student exchange program in schools, where someone from Aroostook County may spend a year at a school in Europe, for example, and a student from that European school spends that same year here in the County.  But it seems that the Acadian Cultural Exchange serves as a resource for the exchange of information; if you don't have the answer, you can tell someone where to go to get the information they seek. [The Acadian Cultural Exchange 
RFD #2 Box 99, Madawaska, ME 04756]
GC:  Yes.  I'm on the Internet. There was a lady who wanted to know something about her uncle who worked for the B&A Railroad, whose name was Michaud, wanted to know about a funeral of a Michaud that had his legs accidentally removed in a B&A accident.  We sort of looked around, we found the material they wanted in some of my publications, so this is what I do.  People don't know where to start.

AM.:  For the past 30 years, you've been deeply involved in researching, gathering information, and working to "revitalize" interest in Acadian culture.  Where does this drive come from?
GC:  I'm just an old country school teacher at heart.  I love to learn.  I like to share what I learn.  I'm so pleased when a young person shows an interest.  Like my daughter, who for a long time, kept thinking Mother was a little weird because she loved cemeteries and things like that.  Well, now they're on the Internet and they see all these people that share the same interest I do.  Now, the presentation of the cemetery slides I'll be giving next week, those photographs were taken 20 years ago, of every cemetery in the Madawaska Territory, both sides of the boundary.  Twenty years later people come to me and want to see my slides, so it's kind of interesting, you know.  I've been a member of the Maine Old Cemetery Association since its inception in '68, so when they come to the Valley, or to the County, they have somebody here.

AM.:  Do you have an ultimate goal, a dream of what you'd like to ultimately accomplish with all this effort that you've been devoting for the past 30 years?
GC:  My primary goal is that the next generation is proud of who they are.  They just wanted to forget their cultural heritage.  Ah, that was not important. They anglicized their name and there were a lot old-fashioned theories and legends that were still intact, the way you brought up your family, and, you know, like a pregnant woman doesn't go to church on Sunday when she started to show, things like that.  So, these were all little tidbits of information that sort of really got me involved, and not only that, but the bottom line is that the new generation, the young people are proud of being a Chassé, or being a Pelletier.  They're proud of who you are because for a long time, the people up here were not.  It was just like the people with their Native American heritage, they're just now coming out in the open and admitting that they had an Indian grandmother.

AM.:  To what do you attribute this low self-esteem among Acadians in Aroostook County, in the Valley; what's the source of this shame, this lack of pride?
GC:  We were working to survive, we had our large families, we were farming people.  We had these large families so we could survive on the farm.  Les anglais would come in and they got all the top jobs, the administrative jobs, and we had this feeling, well, if I even fight with the authorities÷We've got a lot of talent in this valley.  Why do you go out and hire somebody from Ohio to head the Archive in Fort Kent?  I was telling Dick Dumont when he was president of UMFK, I was pounding him on the chest, you know.  He mentioned the fact that this Lisa was a very well organized person, which she is, and she's done a beautiful job with the Archives.  I don't always agree with her, and I tell her, and she appreciates that.  And, so, it made the Frenchmen feel, well, maybe there's something wrong with me.  I discovered this truly when I did youth work and I was responsible for organizing entertainment at the University of Maine with my kids from northern Aroostook. And so, of course, this had been a driving force behind me, behind the reunions, behind preserving of the culture.  Be happy who you are, you know.  I know to start with the Jewish people in New York.  They were all refugees, well-educated PhDs from Berlin, they were Jewish, they were chased out.  Some of my best friends had been on the 2,000-mile Hitler death marches.  They were just beautiful people and I learned so much from them and the value of what life was. So this is what I've been trying to pass on here.

AM.:  It sounds like you've been the driving force behind the efforts to make people recognize that they need not be ashamed but should take pride in their culture and their background here in northern Aroostook.  How would you rate your progress and your successes?
GC:  We've come a long way.  These reunions have done wonders.  Not you take the Chassé reunion, for instance. Chassés were not Acadians, they came from eastern France, our progenitor had been deported for dealing in black market salt.  The only people who had access to salt were the tax collector and the king.  Well, this 19-year old Jean Chassé was going to make a fast buck, so he and 98 others were deported.  Now when we started delving into the Chassé history, "Oh no!  We're not gonna tell that; that's embarrassing."  See, right away that came to the surface; "we're not good enough."  But the reunion committee turned it into our float centered on salt.  We had salt presentation at the mass, salt played a big part of our family reunion, so of course Jean Chassé was not demonized and, like the University of Montréal says, these first people didn't come to American because they were angels!  So we all ended up being proud of who we were, Chassés.  We planted our tree,  we put a monument down there, we wrote a book, we fought and argued and everything, but we had a beautiful reunion.  But the bottom line was, they were proud to write their name.  Now, these are all little steps taken in preserving our culture.

AM.:  Do you have an ultimate goal over the next few years, something you'd like to see happen, something that hasn't been established?
GC:  It's happening now, with the younger generation taking over.  Now the Dumont family reunion we had this year, oh, it was not a big one, but it was one of the best organized.  The young people utilized modern technology.  They had a beautiful reunion and it was all young people.  So, like I say, it's happening now, the young people get at the wheel and they're continuing what we started.

AM.:  Are there people who are going to keep this work going when you've stopped?
GC:  Well, the Heritage Council is doing a good job.  But, on the other hand, when the buck stops, so does the interest.  In my case, it's a private thing, it's a love affair.

AM.:  Are you suggesting that much of the effort by other groups is driven by money?
GC:  I have a tendency to say yes.  I'm not saying 100 percent now, don't quote me saying that, but as old timers, we have tendency to judge, right.  So far I have seen that the only time there was an interest shown by a certain element was as long as there was a dollar attached to it.  That's my way of putting the money was being funded.  When we started the Madawaska Historical Society in '68, we started in with a federal program, the Bilingual Education Program, title 7.  They were duplicating what we were doing.

AM.:  They were duplicating the efforts that were already being made on a voluntary basis?
GC:  That's right, and that's what is being done with the powers that be.  That's why I became, why I distanced myself from the Park Service, because they have their own agenda, they take over, they promote the Park Service.  I felt our heritage, culture took a back seat. They're doing the same thing in Calais, there, with St. Croix.  I told Bob Reynolds, the superintendent of Acadia Park--this is all done out of Acadia Park now--What in the devil did they know about us people, how we felt?  Bob Reynolds said, "Géraldine, what do you make of this?"  I said, "Well, to tell the truth, Bob, we're spinning our wheels in the dust.  You've got nothing concrete to show for these three years of work being done."  Maybe I was a little harsh.   He just laughed; cantankerous old lady, you know.  But that's exactly how I felt.  And one other thing, I want to emphasize is that I'm building in interest in Acadian and French culture, but I'm also part Scotch and Irish. So I do not like to leave out the other ethnic groups.

AM.:  Let me ask one more thing about French in the schools and bringing back the language skills.  For a long time, children whose first language was French were prohibited from speaking French on the school grounds, and now it's turned around 180 degrees.  Why?
GC:  Federal dollars.  Federal dollars.

AM.:  There's money to support bilingual education programs; was there not money before?
GC:  No. Because they forbade you from using French.

AM.:  Was this a local prohibition, was it state law, was it federal regulations that classes were taught only in English?
GC:  You asked me why the French people had low self-esteem:  they were forbidden to be who they were in their classrooms.  I remember when I taught school up in St. Francis.   See, I grew up on the French-Scottish-Irish neighborhood up in St. Francis.  I don't know if you know about the moosetowners, and all that; we call Žem moosetowners, but there's this pocket of Scotch-Irish, Cathy Pelletier stuff, you know. So we never felt discriminated against even though we learned our prayers and catechism in English.  Papa and mama always spoke French in the house.

AM.:  French was your first language?
GC:  Yes, and then when I married Ernie, Ernie was strictly French with a thick accent, but I was not ashamed of his accent because Ernie was a self-made man; matter of fact, I did a book on him when he turned 80.  So we never felt persecuted like some of the French kids here in St. David, or the back settlement of Ste-Agathe.  My kids couldn't believe it.  They'd say, "Mama, why do the teachers play favorites to the kids from town instead of the kids that travel on the bus?"  Well, most of the French kids were farm kids, hard workers, and my kinds noticed it; they brought it to my attention, because I was not aware it was so prominent in the schools, because I came from St. Francis and there was none of that.

AM.:  I normally close the interviews by asking if there is something you'd like to say, some point we haven't touched upon.
GC:  It's like I said a while ago, we've come a long way.  More and more people are realizing how fortunate they are to be bilingual in this area.  The rest of the country's finally waking up, The County, or the state, finally realizing that the dumb Frenchmen haven't been that dumb after all. So other than that, I hope the young generation continues to appreciate who they are, what their background is, and make the best of it.  I have no grandiose plans or anything, it's just that we should continue. We're doing it through federal funds, bilingual program, immersion, they have Žem up at the school which is nice.  Some of the parents, the young parents are pleased.  Now whenever I give a talk in any of the schools, the parents always come and enjoy it as much as the children do.  I have a whole little ritual that I use, and so all I hope is that they continue going the direction they're going, whether its private or federally funded.

To contact Géraldine, and the Acadian Cultural Exchange, gpchasse@ctel.net
 
 

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