CATAHOULA LAKE, some say Lake Catahoula, is a small mysterious lake in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, at the western edge of the Atchafalaya Basin. Not to be confused with the much larger lake by the same name in the northern half of the state, the narrow and picturesque lake has long been regarded as sacred, and a legend of its violent birth has attached to it.Two or three hundred years before the Cajuns arrived, the story goes, a peaceful Indian village completely disappeared when the earth cracked open, swallowing the entire encampment in a single gulp. The canyon soon filled with water and they called the deep new lake Cata-Oulou — lake of sacrifice. Legend has it that Indians from miles around would make pilgrimages to the verdant lake to offer sacrifices and perform other religious rituals.
Catahoula is the name of the community that sprouted up around Catahoula Lake at the beginning of the twentieth century. My father was born there in 1940, when the predominant language spoken was Cajun French. In fact, he only learned English when he started school. He was reprimanded by his teachers for speaking French, as were many children of his generation. The prevailing attitude at that time considered Cajun culture, and the Cajun French language in particular, to be improper and undignified. But because of its relative isolation from the surrounding culture, both geographically and linguistically, and because of the fierce pride its citizens felt for their heritage, this tight-knit community was able to retain its unique religious, musical and culinary traditions throughout the twentieth century despite the pressure to homogenize.