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MSU hosts Cajun folklorist and environmental activist to discuss changing climate, cultural preservation

November 17, 2023
John Foret speaking at the Business College Complex on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. Foret spoke about the effects of climate change on the culture of his home state of Louisiana as part of Geography Awareness Week.
John Foret speaking at the Business College Complex on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. Foret spoke about the effects of climate change on the culture of his home state of Louisiana as part of Geography Awareness Week. —
Photo by Jack Armstrong | The State News

MSU's Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences hosted Jonathan Foret, a Cajun folklorist and environmental activist, to give a talk on the challenges of preserving coastal Louisianan culture as climate change and natural disasters slowly deteriorate the land. 

The event, entitled "Rescuing the Rougarou: Preserving culture in a changing climate," was described by department chair Ashton Shortridge as the "main event" of Geography Awareness Week.

"(Geography) is one of those fields that really ties together the social world and the environmental world," Shortridge said at the event. "That makes it very interesting to study and very important and probably no more important than ever than it is now."

Shortridge introduced Foret, the event's honorary guest, as someone with strong roots in coastal Louisiana. 

"He grew up working on shrimp boats and speaking Louisiana French with his grandmother," Shortridge said. 

Upon taking the floor, Foret provided a background of his cultural identity. His ancestors were Acadians, who were French people who settled in what is today's Canadian Province of Nova Scotia and were forcibly deported in the mid-1700s by the English during the war between France and England.

Foret said this deportation is known as "Le Grand Dérangement" in French, which translates to "The Great Expulsion."

"A third of the Acadians ran and hid in the woods, and two-thirds of them were placed on ships," Foret said. "Of those two-thirds, one-third of them died through the seas or shipwrecks, and the other third landed up on the Eastern coast of the United States."

"At that point, word got out that there was a French settlement down in Louisiana," Foret said. "People were speaking French, they were very welcoming to the French folks, so then the Acadians eventually made their way to Louisiana, bringing with them the story of the Rougarou."

Foret explained that the Rougarou is the French, and less violent, version of the Werewolf. It is typically used to teach Cajun youth lessons about the values of obedience, Foret said. 

Foret recalled his grandmother telling him, "You better be good or the Rougarou's gonna pull ya toes," and that the Rougarou only comes out at night, retreating back into the swamps when the sun comes up. 

Despite Foret's deep nostalgia for his youth and his love for coastal Louisiana and its culture, he said he is being forced to move his family, including his two-year-old son, away due to the environmental challenges facing the region. 

Foret likened the wide range of geographical challenges facing coastal Louisiana to a bingo card.

The first challenge Foret identified was the levees of the Mississippi River. He said despite being designed to curb the risk of flooding in cities, the levees prevent sediments in floodwater from being deposited onto land, causing the land to compact.

"Southern Louisiana is sinking," Foret said. 

On top of this, Foret explained, the Barrier Islands, which are the region's "first line of defense against hurricanes," are also sinking as a result of levee systems, so hurricanes have doubly devastating effects. 

Foret said that yet another challenge is "relative sea level rise," which refers to how sea levels rise and fall relative to the height of the land at a particular location. For coastal Louisiana, this has devastating consequences. 

"We're going underwater faster than most other places in the world," Foret said.

The region is facing another challenge: an invasive rodent called nutria. Foret showed a photo of him holding one of the critters. 

"This is Benet, he is a nutria, and he is absolutely horrible for our environment," Foret said.

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Foret explained that Nutria, originally from South America, were brought to the U.S. during the Fur Trade. But their population exploded once wearing fur fell out of fashion and trappers stopped hunting nutria. 

Nutria cause structural damage to wetlands and crops. Foret emphasized that Benet, who passed away this year and was honored at a local festival, was a good Nutria who only ate the lettuce, tomatoes and corn Foret fed him.

"We had a memorial service for him," Foret recalled through a chuckle. "We had a slideshow with 'Wind Beneath My Wings' playing. I cried. It was supposed to be a joke, but it was much more emotional than I anticipated."

According to Foret, one key environmental challenge facing the region is the damage caused by the oil and gas industry. He explained that as oil companies seek to extract oil from the ground, they dig canals through marshes to get to the locations of oil wells.

"They made Swiss cheese out of our wetlands," Foret said. "It allowed for saltwater intrusion to come in and kill the grass that was holding dirt in place."

Foret also spoke about the unexpected impact of the oil industry on his community. He displayed a photo on the projector of the type of shrimping boat he grew up working on. 

"This boat should have trawl nets on those rigs that you see on either side," Foret said, pointing to the screen. "But instead of trawl nets, it has oil booms, because during the BP oil spill that happened in the gulf, BP employed our shrimping fleet to go and deploy those oil booms to try to contain the oil spill."

After providing examples of a few other environmental challenges facing the region, Foret transitioned to a discussion about Hurricane Ida and its effects on his home state.

In the aftermath of the natural disaster, Foret worked for a nonprofit called the Helio Foundation, which raised about $1 million for hurricane relief. 

Foret showed a photograph of the school he attended growing up, ripped to shreds by the storm. 

Foret then showed a 12-minute documentary video produced by a European news organization that followed Foret’s day-to-day work of providing relief to Louisianans affected by the hurricane.

At one point in the video, the journalist asked Foret, "Why would you stay here?"

"I am this," Foret told the reporter. "These people are my people, and I don't want to be without these people."

Later, the journalist asked Foret about what is going to happen to coastal Louisiana. 

"It's very difficult for me to say because it's not gonna be here," Foret said in the video. "It's too late."

In the video, Foret reflected on the implications of land loss and climate change for the future of his family and his seven-month-old son. 

"Nothing makes me more sad than to think that that kid is not gonna have this place to grow up," Foret said. 

Foret sat in the front row of the lecture hall, looking up at the screen and resting his face in his palm, watching the video.

In a discussion with audience members following the talk and video presentation, Foret talked about the resiliency of the Cajun people and the likelihood that their culture can be preserved despite their land being destroyed and many moving away. He said that if the Acadians could preserve their culture following The Great Expulsion, then Cajuns could preserve their culture despite having to move out of coastal Louisiana. 

Foret joked that the Cajun community could create their version of Frankenmuth in Michigan and call it "Cajun Town."

Foret said that as the pressure mounts to move out of coastal Louisiana due to environmental challenges and the frequency of natural disasters, he and other members of his community are reconnecting to the generational trauma of their Acadian ancestors who were displaced. 

Foret said that if he didn’t have a two-year-old, he would "ride it out in Louisiana." But because he doesn’t want his son to "grow up in crisis," his family is moving out of the state. 

Foret said his family is considering moving to Michigan because the water, swamp-based geography and scenery of water lilies and cattails remind him of home. He also said Michigan has a great responsibility in leading the country in climate efforts going forward due to the state’s vast freshwater resources.

Foret was asked by an audience member about his memories of home. He recalled his childhood when his dad taught him how to harvest thistles, a Cajun tradition. He said that thistles are the first plant to bloom in the Spring. 

Foret said that in the Spring following Hurricane Ida, he was able to take his two-year-old out to gather thistles. 

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