In the northern reaches of Maine, the people of Madawaska celebrate their Acadian heritage with a festival that is equal parts party and affirmation.
All photos/art by Jonathan Kozowyk
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.
The winters are harsh here, with regular spells in the negative 30s, but that frigid barrier has had a preservative effect. Unlike most places in New England, where subsequent waves of immigration have watered down the original population, the St. John Valley is still overwhelmingly French. Open the phone book and you’ll find the same handful of last names repeated for pages. It’s what Massachusetts would look like if, after the Mayflower, the rest of Europe had decided that colonization wasn’t worth all the fuss.
On the surface, the towns of the St. John Valley resemble many that share U.S. 1 as their Main Street: farm homes centered around a cluster of clean but clearly aging storefronts at the crossroads. But look more closely and you’ll notice placards in the windows of the businesses that resolutely read “On parle francais ici,” and it may strike you that the churches here are a little larger than you’d expect. At the center of each hamlet the doors of the Catholic mini-cathedral erected by the town’s Acadian forefathers still stand open. Climb to the top of one and you’ll spot the spire of the next church on the misty horizon, then the next–some on the American side, some on the Canadian–like solemn needles stitching the valley together.
In Madawaska, St. David’s Church looms over Guy’s museum. Out front the Acadian flag flutters side by side with the Stars and Stripes. On the day I visited, Norman Cyr, president of the local historical society (who has passed away since our interview), told me that his family had donated the poles at their last reunion.
“It started out that we just wanted to put up an Acadian flag,” he says. “Then I started to look at that, and I said, ‘If we put an Acadian we almost have to put an American too.'”
Out here, isolated on the border, locals have a very real sense that they’re something different. They’re American, sure, but they’re something else too, something more. When politicians in America and Canada settled on the border in 1842 and split the St. John Valley down the middle, the Acadians had already been living there for more than 50 years. Brothers and cousins whose farms sat just a few hundred feet apart across the shallow, rocky water were suddenly told that they were now living in two different countries–to which many defiantly replied, “Je suis de la Republique de Madawaska.”
That independent streak survives today, and residents cling to their dual identity with an iron grip. History has repeatedly tried to tear the Acadians apart; it’s taught them a few things about how to stick together.
At the center of Madawaska’s multi-purpose building, a stage stands decorated with crepe paper and streamers. Above it hangs a lighting rig elaborate enough for a rock concert. The lights dim, and the few hundred souls milling about settle into rows of stiff metal folding chairs. Beurmond Banville, the evening’s emcee, takes the stage and with a flourish welcomes everyone to the Talbot dit Gervais family talent show. The audience shouts and cheers.
Outside the building, a carnival scene unfolds. For many folks here, this is considered the height of the annual Madawaska Acadian Festival, a week of parties and feasts in August, with the clamorous tintamarre at the heart of it. Tonight there’s beer and fried food, and, if the weather holds, there’s the promise of bed races down the hill. Main Street has been transformed into a dance floor for a zydeco band shipped up from Louisiana. The festival tonight harks back to the town’s glory days of the ’60s, when the paper industry was booming and the streets of “Mad Town” were thick with folks searching for a drink in otherwise-dry Aroostook County.
But despite the party warming up just feet away, the majority of people decide to be here, at the talent show, listening to Banville’s jokes: “I have no talent, so they made me talk. The only thing I can play is the radio and it has to be a damn good one.” Ba-dum-tsh! The acts progress at a rapid clip. A teenaged girl prances through an Irish jig, and an old man sings Elvis songs off a karaoke machine. Later, the Lagasse Trio, a set of octogenarian siblings, take the stage and play a soulful Canadian ballad. “J’ecoute a ma porte de la chanson du vente,” croons 87-year-old Rose, while the stage tech executes an Aerosmith-esque light show around them. The crowd eats it up.
Locals admit that the whole thing is a little hokey, but they’d never miss it, because, really, this is the whole point. The Acadian Festival isn’t just about cutting loose and having a good time; it’s a chance to call people home and for a few days, in a very real sense, to rebuild a tiny Acadia beside the chilly waters of the St. John River.
Since 1755, the Acadians have been a stateless people, like Gypsies, or Jews before modern Israel, and without a homeland to tether them they’ve steadily drifted farther and farther apart. Keeping the bonds of blood and tradition strong is essential to preserving their identity. Without a homeland of their own, Acadians have learned to trace the boundaries of their nation with the limbs of their family trees.
Norm Cyr explained to me that in 1980, two years after the festival tradition began, the town decided to anchor the event with a family reunion. Not several small reunions, mind you, but one massive, nationally advertised reunion-to-end-all-reunions. Every year families petition the historical society for the privilege of hosting, and the chosen clan is given a place of honor in the festivities, a special float in the festival’s second parade (on Sunday), and the onerous task of putting on the talent show.
The last time Norm’s family hosted, they searched every phonebook in the U.S. and Canada for anyone with the last name Cyr. They spent three days stuffing almost 14,000 invitations, which essentially read: “You don’t know me, but we’re probably related. How would you like to drive to the far end of Maine for a party? And, oh … P.S. Do you have any interesting talents?” I’m floored by how many people say yes each year. At the Cyr reunion, they drew in representatives from nearly every state and all but one Canadian province.
“Ninety-nine percent I’d never met,” Norm recalled. “That’s where the goose bumps are raised. When these people meet and they’re second cousins once removed and they never knew [each other], but their parents talked about them … In my personal opinion, that’s where the reward is.”
After Sunday’s parade and the festival’s closing ceremony, the host family gathers at the park by Guy’s museum to plant a tree at the landing site in honor of their ancestors. Visit it and you’ll find a long row of saplings swaying silently in the frigid breeze. It’s a simple tradition, but it carries a powerful message. It’s a reminder to Acadians, whether they live in Maine, Louisiana, or Canada, that they may be isolated from one another by time and geography, but they are still one people–scraps of fabric cut from the same flag.
At the tintamarre parade our roller-coaster ride ends without incident as we ease onto the bridge to Canada. Across the river, the town of Edmundston, New Brunswick, climbs up the opposite slope. It’s slightly larger than Madawaska, but otherwise a mirror image–same names on the mailboxes, same names on the graves.
Before the border was fixed in 1842, the two towns were a single community, and in many ways they still are. Kids in Madawaska swear that the nightlife is better north of the border, and Canadians cram the supermarkets south of it looking for deals. Running parallel to the bridge, a pipeline connects Edmundston’s pulp factory directly to Madawaska’s paper mill. The livelihoods of both towns are literally linked, like two chambers of the same beating heart.
On the far side of the bridge a group of New Brunswick Acadians falls into line, and the parade begins. (Most years the tintamarre is a foot parade only, but this year our runaway float is joining the marchers.) The crowd shouts and sings and smashes their pots and pans above their heads. Amid this holy racket a massive Acadian flag is unfurled. A dozen marchers, some Canadian, some American, carry it between them in a show of unity.
The tintamarre is a fairly new tradition, becoming popular among Acadian communities in the ’70s. It’s meant to be both a celebration and a defiant cry, a way to tell the world that they refuse to assimilate, or, as one marcher puts it, “We’re here and don’t you forget it!” But they’re not just reminding the rest of the world; they’re reminding themselves as well, and, in particular, their children. As everywhere else, the Internet Age has made the world a smaller place, and there’s concern that the culture isn’t taking root among the younger generation.
Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine/Fort Kent, tells me that she’s worried about the survival of the language. English overtook French on the American side of the valley only a relatively short time ago, and it’s common to meet people as young as their forties or fifties who learned English only in grammar school. But that’s not true for today’s kids. They pepper their language with French slang, but few speak the language fluently anymore, which is a trend Pelletier and other educators are trying desperately to reverse.
“The language is the vehicle of the culture,” she says. “It’s not just the words they’re saying; it’s that sense of being loved. That sense of being in safety. That sense of being with people who are your community. That’s what language is all about.”
On the float I ask the girl with the flag and her friends about all of this. Are their parents making too much of it? They shrug their shoulders and bashfully admit that their French isn’t what it could be, but they still love the valley. One says that she just started college in Presque Isle and finds it weird living that far south: “You say you’re from Madawaska, and they’re like, ‘Where is that?’ I say, ‘You think you’re north now?'”
Her joke doesn’t have quite the gravitas of “Je suis de la Republique de Madawaska,” but I think the meaning is the same. These kids, at least, think being an Acadian on the far-flung edge of America is something worth bragging about, and that’s not nothing.
After the parade finishes its noisy circuit of Edmundston, the float turns back toward the bridge. The border guards rapidly check passports, and soon the parade resumes on the American side. Downtown Madawaska is ready to receive them. The Acadian flag flies from every business as the parade rattles by in the fleeting light of the afternoon.
A woman holding a gold star on a pole takes the lead. It bobs and sways ahead of the marchers as she dances with a reveler decked head to waist in a papier-mache moose costume. The star is the same one that graces the Acadian flag, the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), symbol of the Acadians’ patron saint, Mary of the Assumption. It also represents the lodestar, which has guided mariners and travelers for millennia. It’s a fitting symbol for a people driven from their homeland. During their time in the wilderness, Acadians followed both the stars and their faith, and they’re following them still.
In the window of a church, someone has written a verse from the Book of Psalms: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” Everyone in the parade would agree as they hoot and holler together–members of a tightly knit family with roots that burrow under nations.
This year’s celebration is set for August 14-17 in Madawaska. Details at: acadianfestival.com. The St. John Valley will also host a number of events for the World Acadian Congress this year, August 8-24. Details at: cma2014.com. View a slide show of additional photos of the Acadian Festival.
Justin Shatwell’s “The Memory Keeper” (March/April 2011) was a finalist for that year’s City and Regional Magazine Association award for best feature writing.