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Oral Traditions


Mrs. Blanche Pelletier of Madawaska, Maine sings a traditional French-language ballad from her mother Dorimène Soucy, during a field recording visit with Acadian Archives Director Lisa Ornstein in 1993.
Many oral traditions described in this section are shared by Maine Acadians and their "English" neighbors in New England (E. Ives, pers. comm. 1993). Others were brought to the New World from France by Acadians and French Canadians during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Many traditional songs, folktales, legends, and beliefs from this period have passed from one generation to the next. They survive today in French settlement areas of the U.S. and Canada, often appearing to be closer to the 17th century forms than presently occurs in France. The co-occurrence of some traditions in the Upper St. John River Valley and in Louisiana strengthens the assertion that their oral traditions derive from similar Old World sources, given the fact that the two populations have been separated for nearly 240 years (Ancelet 1987: 277ñ288). Additional research is required to determine the vitality and prominence of Old World forms in the Valleyís oral tradition.

The American Dialect Society recorded oral histories in Fort Kent, Maine, in the 1930s. Many traditional tales were recorded in the Valley by GeneviËve Massignon in the 1940s. As recently as the 1970s, Roger Paradis and the Aroostook County Oral History Project recorded folktales on the American side of the Valley, while folklore students from the UniversitÈ de Moncton recorded tales on the New Brunswick side. Since 1992, the Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes at the University of Maine at Fort Kent has been identifying and recording performances by local traditional musicians, singers, and story-tellers as part of their St. John Valley Folk Arts Survey. They have so far identified 50 musicians, 17 singers, and 3 story-tellers.

Valley residents share with other French Catholics a common body of stories about mythical creatures. The lutins are the only widespread example of fairy-like creatures found in French folklore in North America. The lutins are said to ride farmersí horses at night and plait the horsesí tails. One resident told a project researcher about lutins who live in caves and come out only at night. He explained that they are so small that a locked door cannot keep them out; they can pass through a keyhole. Stories about lutins are told in all areas where Acadians, and French Canadians and their American descendants live.

Ray Morin of St. David shows how a barrel is assembled.  American Folklife Center photograph by David Whitman, 1991.

Other supernatural creatures present in the folklore of the Upper St. John Valley are also found in French-Canadian, Acadian, and Franco-American folklore. Feux-follets are spirits of the damned that temporarily leave a personís body and wander at night in the shape of a small flame. Loups-garous (werewolves) are another form of night creature. The belief is that sinners may be transformed into black bears or dogs, in which shape they wander each night until someone draws blood from them, thereby breaking the curse.

The oral traditions of Maine Acadians include many other forms. One genre consists of traditional sayings used by adults to control their children or explain sensitive topics to them. For instance, one local resident remembered his parents telling him about le Bonhomme Sept-heures, a fearful character who would visit unpleasant deeds upon young children if they did not go to bed at the designated hour.

Marcella Belanger-Violette of Van Buren, Maine catalogued local présages and superstitions in her 1953 doctoral thesis. Another form of oral tradition is the prÈsage (portent or prediction). Albert (1969) has recorded examples of these, such as: "If a bird hit a window in flight, someone has passed away" and "The weather on the third day of the month predicts the weather for the month," which is expressed by the saying le trois fait le mois. Native and migratory birds figure prominently in this genre, as in other oral forms (see Michaud 1972 and Cyr 1977). Michaud, Cyr, Albert, and others have recorded a wide range of folk speechways, including tongue twisters (vires-langue), proverbs (proverbes), metaphors (mÈtaphores), riddles (devinettes), and nursery rhymes (formulettes Èducatives). Don Levesque, general manager of the St. John Valley Times, invited readers to submit prÈsages, dictons, and patois (sayings) during the winter of 1993ñ94. Readers responded enthusiastically, several sharing their own collections of local sayings.

Strong beliefs relative to the cycle of the moon persist in the Valley. One resident assured researchers that potatoes must be planted in the dÈcroÓt de lune (waning of the moon). A long-time farmer, he explained that the lunar cycle affects birthing, planting, tree cutting, and many other aspects of life. A common belief among farmers is that plants which grow above the ground should be planted en lune profitante (during the waxing of the moon), while root crops should be planted in the waning of the moon.

Oral tradition in the Upper St. John Valley has its share of tall tales, stories about odd characters, and other humorous tales. The ever-present international border has figured in a great many tales about smuggling, including stories about five-gallon tins of concentrated rum bearing the label of the "White Hand." In most of these tales, the cunning and trickery of the smuggler is emphasized, but some reveal the smugglerís ignorance or naÔvetÈ in dealings with customs agents.

Marguerite Cyr of Van Buren, Maine shared her memories of tales about the beggar Papineau in her book about growing up in Van Buren in the early 20th century. Many stories are told about an itinerant beggar nicknamed Papineau, who spent years wandering through the Valley. Hundreds of anecdotes about Papineau are contained in the UniversitÈ de Monctonís folklore archive and in the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History of the Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine (Orono). The stories describe Papineau as a frightening figure who could eat more than any man and who could cast spells if people refused to give him food and lodging.

The themes of sacrifice and hardship associated with the early years of settlement in the Upper St. John Valley are embodied in oral tradition for some residents of the area. During the summer of 1991, Brassieur and his fellow fieldworkers (1992) heard stories about Acadian pioneers erecting a cross at the point of their arrival in the Valley, and stories about pioneers who arrived without possessionsónot even toolsóand who proceeded to establish villages and build houses. Fieldworkers heard a story about two brothers who, after following long and separate routes to the Upper St. John Valley, ended up settling and living out their lives at different locations in the Valley. Neither one ever realized that his brother lived so near. These and other stories, some of which are based on Thomas Albertís Histoire du Madawaska ([1920] 1985), have become part of the institutionalized history of the Valley.

Another legendary figure associated with the theme of self-sacrifice is "Tante Blanche." During a 1797 famine the woman upon whom the legend is based, Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau, performed many remarkable acts of charity. Tante Blanche was the oldest woman at Violette Brook, where she resided. Wearing snowshoes, she brought extra clothing and provisions to people suffering from hunger and cold, while the men from the community attempted to hunt for food. In this way, she is believed to have saved many lives (Albert [1920] 1985: 57). With time, Tante Blanche became renowned for her selflessness and became an object of general veneration. She was said to be able to cure the sick and the tormented, to chase out evil spirits, to find lost objects, and even to reconcile enemies (Albert 1969: 58). She is memorialized at the Madawaska Historical Societyís Tante Blanche Museum at St. David.

Tante Blanche is not the only woman who is remembered for her devotion to the people of the Valley. Henriette Pelletier, who was known as "Tante Henriette" or "la Capuche," was born in Saint-Alexandre, QuÈbec, in 1861 and lived near Frenchville, Maine, from 1874 until her death at the age of 90. Henriette was a midwife who delivered over 500 babies. She also cared for new mothers and their children and dispensed herbal medicines to the sick. She sometimes walked for miles to reach her patients and was always ready to offer her services when called upon (Paradis 1981).

Finally, a host of traditional sayings are repeated and passed on in the Valley. Albert (1969: 108) recorded the presence of many expressions, some Acadian, some French Canadian, and others that are common to all French communities in North America, such as the traditional New Yearís greeting: "Bonne, sainte et heureuse annÈe, et le paradis ‡ la fin de vos jours" (Good, holy, and happy New Year, and Paradise at the end of your days). Michaud (1972) describes the social contexts in which alternative expressions connoting abundance and generosity may be invoked. Examples of sayings recorded by Albert (1969) include "il mord dans le fer" (he is biting iron) to describe an angry person.

Ray Morin of St. David shows how a barrel is assembled.  American Folklife Center photograph by David Whitman, 1991.
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