Like the rest of the nation, they scream their sentiments from their car bumpers: ''Cajun Power!'' ''Parlons Francais!'' Big Oil may be bankrolling much of Cajun country these days, but French is fueling its culture.
Since the discovery of offshore petroleum just after World War II, Lafayette, the center of southern Louisiana's ''French Triangle,'' has metamorphosed from prairie village into a miniature Kuwait. It boasts more independent oil operators than Houston, and of its 80,000 residents some 2,000 are millionaires, more per capita than any other city in the country.
To the scene of this grime has come an army of oilmen from Oklahoma and ''Take-Us'' (Cajun slang for the Longhorn State), assaulting traditional local culture with a Willie Nelson modernity. But the Cajuns are fighting back, not with sticks and stones, but with language and music, their most effective weapons.
Nearly a million people, 1 in 4 Louisianians, call themselves Cajuns. They are the nation's largest French-speaking minority and, according to academics, one of the least assimilated and least understood subcultures in America. ''Cajun'' is a corruption of the word ''Acadian,'' much as ''Injun'' became the frontier contraction of ''Indian.'' Louisiana's Cajuns are largely descended from French fisherfolk of the coastal provinces of Brittany and Normandy, who founded Acadia, a colony around Canada's Bay of Fundy, in 1604 -- 16 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
In 1755, when the Acadians refused to renounce their -Roman Catholic faith, swear allegiance to the British Crown, and take up arms against Quebec, the English governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, decimated the settlement. With 24 Yankee cargo vessels sent from Boston, he deported the colony's 18,000 Acadians in Le Grand Derangement, the brutal expulsion chronicled by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his narrative poem ''Evangeline.''
Nearly half of the Acadians died, either at the hands of Lawrence's soldiers or en route to the Newer World. Others were sold into slavery in North Carolina and the West Indies. A few survivors escaped west to the upper reaches of the Mississippi and floated downriver to New Orleans, then under the cultural thumb of aristocratic French Creoles. Joined later by a few thousand more of their countrymen, the -Acadians regrouped in New Orleans, only to be banished by the Spanish governor to Louisiana's western wilderness, a forsaken piece of real estate ''little attractive except to water-fowl, snakes and alligators,'' wrote Charles Dudley Warner for Harper's New Monthly Magazine in the late 1800s.
Severed from New Orleans by that swampy moat called the Atchafalaya River, this isolated territory the size of mainland Nova Scotia became a steamy ''fourth Maritime province.'' It is still known alternatively as ''Acadiana'' or the ''French Triangle,'' and covers 22 parishes (counties), running from the Mississippi River Delta along the Gulf coast to the Texas border, with its apex at Alexandria, in central Louisiana. The east side of the triangle is bayou country; to the west stretches the Cajun prairie and Louisiana's rice bowl.
At 6:45 a.m., through the dark corridors of Burke Hall at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, wafts the mournful Cajun French strains of fiddler Michael Doucet: Workin's too hard and stealin's not right. Asking for charity is something I can't do. . . .''
Hooting and stomping along with the record is Barry Jean Ancelet, disc jockey on the early-bird Cajun program ''Bonjour Louisiane'' at college radio station KRVS. He wears a frayed jean shirt, gray corduroys, scuffed cowboy boots, and a droopy mustache. He has the rumpled, disoriented look of someone who just woke up.
''This next song really tears me up,'' says Ancelet, cuing up ''Prison Bars'' by the Balfa Brothers, the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Cajun fiddle music. ''One lady called in and said, 'Don't play that song too often. I have to pull off the road and listen.' We get 18 to 20 phone calls an hour, everything from requests to 'What's the going price of soybeans?' ''
For Mr. Ancelet, director of the Folklore and Folklife Program at the university's Center for Louisiana Studies, Cajun music is the heartbeat of the culture. He calls himself an ''activist folklorist,'' and sees radio as ''a way of recycling the culture.'' KRVS, the only French-English bilingual public radio station in the United States, broadcasts 30 hours of French-language programming a week. Now it only reaches listeners within a 15-mile radius of Lafayette, but this summer the station will boost its power from 3,000 to 100,000 watts and will ''start getting out to those shrimp boats and oil workers in the Gulf,'' Ancelet says. ''They're the guts of this culture. You start mobilizing those guys in the breadbasket and you can move mountains.''
The recipe for authentic Cajun music sounds like one for chicken gumbo: To a rich base of old French fiddle folk music, add the pepper of black African blues , some German accordion, a pinch of triangle and Spanish guitar, and then stir in the mournful melodies of the American Indian.
After World War I Cajun music began to lose its distinctive flavor. ''You could hear the Americanization process going on in the '20s and '30s, the heavy influence of Western swing and bluegrass music, and eventually the absence of the accordion,'' Ancelet says. ''By the late '30s musicians who barely spoke English were trying to sing in English.''
The culprit, he believes, was Big Oil. ''When oil was discovered near Jennings (La.) in the 1900s, it brought in a flood of money and Anglo-Americans. For a while the tail was wagging the dog. The rich minority determined culture. Then there was the Mandatory Education Act, imposing English in schools and banning French. Next came World War I and II, which took away Cajun boys who had never been beyond the Mississippi and Sabine Rivers. The final blow was mass media and the monolithic, plastic, hamburger culture.''
''In 1948 when Cajuns were coming back from the war, Iry LeJeune, a blind bard and accordion player from Church Point, recorded this song in the old Louisiana-French style,'' says Ancelet, reverently setting ''La Branche du Murier'' on the turntable. ''Nobody had yelled like that in 10 years. He was taking his finger out of the dike and that song was the pivot that all Cajun music turned around on.''
Around 7:30 a.m. a deejay for the morning jazz show arrives and we adjourn to Dwyers, an old downtown diner, for breakfast. There, over grits and biscuits, the discussion turns to Ancelet's exit from Lafayette as a teen-ager.
After ''learning about Plymouth Rock and all that stuff,'' Ancelet left for college and spent his junior year abroad at the University of Nice in France. ''That was my exile experience,'' he recalls. ''I realized what I was missing. When I came home and heard Dewey Balfa, I knew I had found my cultural godfather.
''The next year, 1974, we did the music festival. We wanted Cajun music in a concert setting but wondered who would come to hear music (that) people were still trying to forget. It was a Tuesday night, raining cats and dogs, but 12, 000 people jammed an auditorium that held 8,000. Fortunately, the fire marshal's dad was playing in the second group. . . .''
''The festival was to show young people they didn't have to imitate Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger or Hank Williams. They had a tradition of their own,'' Ancelet continues. At the first festival there were 12 groups and the youngest musician was in his 30s. At the fifth festival, in 1978, there were 22 groups, 8 groups with musicians entirely under 30. Two of the groups were all teen-agers.
''How is Cajun music doing? Just fine, because it's not based on mass appeal, '' Ancelet says. ''We've fought like mad to keep it from becoming a trend in those urban-cowboy clubs. That would kill it in no time.''
By the lofty standards of the Academie Francais, Cajun French ain't much. But any Cajun, Barry Ancelet included, would tell you if you want to preserve the culture, be it accordions or crawfish pie, you've got to save what's left of the language. Raise the question around Lafayette of how that should be done and you'll incite prudent men to brawl. Battle is waged between two factions; the unaffiliated get sniped in the cross fire.
In one corner you have CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), a government-sponsored agency that imports more than 100 overseas intructors to teach standard French in Louisiana's public schools. In the other corner, CODOFIL's critics, who think the corruption of French that Cajuns have spoken for the last two centuries is just fine, merci.
The Cajun patois has always been a sort of linguistic rooming house, adopting parts of speech from the immigrants who came to southern Louisiana -- the Spanish, Italians, Portuguese, English, Senegalese slaves, and the indigenous Indians. Many of these settlers were absorbed into the Cajun culture. William Faulkner Rushton points out in his book ''The Cajuns'' that the locals borrowed all sorts of words and expressions: congo,m the word for water moccasin, from the African slaves; ouaouaron,m the word for bullfrog, from the Indians. ''Peace cop'' is recognizably English.
The Acadians' maritime background sprinkled the language with nautical terms. The expression ''to knot one's shoelace'' is amarrer, as in ''to moor'' a boat. ''To turn around'' a car on the street is virer de bord,m as in ''to come about'' in a sailboat.
CODOFIL attacks Cajun French as ''standard French spoken by ignorant men.'' CODOFIL critics return the potshot. Though Cajuns, in fact, are illiterate in their own dialect (Cajun French was never a written language), they protest that ''we don't want the government trying to make Frenchmen out of us.'' They further object to having ''Parisian French'' taught because, they say, it drives a wedge between schoolchildren and their Cajun-speaking parents and grandparents.
The lobby in CODOFIL's ground floor offices in downtown Lafayette looks like something out of a Parisian drugstore. On a display table are stacks of French magazines with soccer league standings and cover stories on the sports cars at Le Mans. Behind the table, a wall is lined with record racks: the Balfa Brothers , Clifton Chenier, Zachary Richard -- the Cajun classics.
A five-year-old in a red baseball cap rests his chin on the French-speaking receptionist's desk. ''Can I have a Cajun Coloring Book, please?'' he asks.
The boy's mother looks slightly embarrassed and perturbed. ''Parlez en Francais, Wally.'' He promptly does as he's told.
CODOFIL's director is Philippe Gustin, who was born in Belgium and who first came to Louisiana in 1974 as a high school French teacher recruited by the agency. He married a Cajun girl, took over the program, and refuses to give ground to the critics. ''Think about it,'' he asks. ''Why should we teach Cajun French? Would you teach redneck English or black English in school?''
Of the some 185 French teachers teaching in Louisiana's public schools under Gustin, 60 percent come from Belgium, Quebec, France, Switzerland, and Tunisia. The remainder are Louisiana-trained teachers. CODOFIL sends the European teachers primarily to the heavily Baptist, English-speaking parishes of northern Louisiana, ''while using Louisiana-trained teachers in southern Louisiana,'' Gustin explains. ''In southern Louisiana, French has to be taught with local flavor. Otherwise it sounds like Chinese to them.''
That day Richard Guidry was in Gustin's office. He grew up in Gueydan, Vermilion Parish, and takes particular pride in his namesake, Ron Guidry. The latter Guidry, that star pitcher for the New York Yankees, is known as ''Louisiana Lightnin' '' and the ''Ragin' Cajun.'' ''Ron was born in Lake Arthur , just next town over from mine,'' Richard beams.
When not resting in the shade of the Guidry family tree, Richard works with the Bureau of Foreign Languages at the Louisiana State Department of Education. He rises to CODOFIL's defense: ''Cajun French is spoken in so many ways that nobody knows what it is. There's no standard. Look at all the ways Cajuns say, 'What's the matter?' In Lafourche Parish, it's 'Qui-ce qu'y a?' In St. Martin it's 'Ca in' a?' It's 'Qui y a?' in Evangeline, and 'Quoi c'est y a' in Acadia. Which one do you teach?''
James Domengeaux, a former US representative from Louisiana, founded CODOFIL in 1968. Domengeaux, a crusty millionaire lawyer, known far and wide as ''Le Grand Jimmy,'' is Acadiana's self-proclaimed ambassador to the world; he wears his pedigree on his sleeve.
''On my paternal side, they were French out of Bordeaux who settled in Haiti, and emigrated to New Orleans during the revolt of Toussaint L'Ouverture,'' says Domengeaux, swinging his feet up on a mountain range of desk papers, and letting his lavender socks sag.
''On my mother's side were the Moutons. As you know, Jean Mouton was the founder of Lafayette, his son Alexander was governor, US senator, and president of the secession committee during the Civil War. My father was a state senator, Louisiana's first elected Republican since the Civil War,'' he says.
Back then, belonging to the Grand Old Party was a lonely business, and Domengeaux, the son, played the Republican knight errant jousting with Huey Long's Democratic kingdom. ''As a young lawyer I couldn't win a case. All the judges were under Long, who had all the powers but life and death. I led the movement here against his absolute dictatorship and when we beat it, I was elected to Congress in the early '40s.''
His law office, a three-minute walk from CODOFIL, is a portrait gallery from that political past. Near a shelf stuffed willy-nilly with books hangs a portrait of FDR. Close by are signed photographs of Russell Long, Lyndon Johnson , Valety Giscard d'Estaing.
Jimmy Domengeaux was weaned on politics and French. The family spoke French at home, but Domengeaux never formally studied the language. He is the first to admit ''I still don't know my French numbers and can't read or write a word. None of us down here speak it very well, but there's nothing wrong with our French that a little grammar won't cure.''
Hoping to find that cure, Domengeaux muscled CODOFIL's authorization through the Louisiana legislature in 1968. State law now requires that a CODOFIL program be established in any parish where one-quarter of the parents petition for it. Domengeaux started off by recruiting and hiring over 30 European teachers. Since then the teaching staff has grown sixfold. CODOFIL is now active in 33 parishes, reaching more than 40,000 of Louisiana's elementary and secondary students.
With additional monetary support from Canada, Belgium, and France, CODOFIL arranges conferences, offers overseas scholarships and student exchanges with France and Quebec, and provides French programming for local radio and telvision. Sister organizations in New England (CODOFONE) and in Manitoba (CODOFIM) are modeled on Domengeaux's successful blueprint.
''We have performed a small miracle,'' he says with characteristic bravado. ''We brought back pride to the culture. Twelve years ago nobody spoke French in the banks, churches, or schools.'' Lest he be pigeonholed as too much the Francophile, he reassures me: ''We have a Hungarian program in Livingston Parish , and an Italian program in Tangipahoa.''
Among the politicians papering Domengeaux's office walls is Rene Levesque, premier of Quebec. The province has a well-staffed ''embassy'' just a stone's throw from CODOFIL, and the two offices work closely. Domengeaux, however, will do cartwheels to flee the label of ''separatist.'' ''I'm an ultraconservative, a great Reagan man, a real American, and I oppose a separatist movement,'' he says. ''Second languages can be sources of great conflict. Look at Quebec in Canada and the Flemish in Belgium. But we have established French here. Oddly enough, our primary support comes from the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who think French is chic and fashionable.''
Returning to a sore point, he adds, ''It's only a few Cajuns trying to sabotage us. They say they can't understand their grandparents. Well, that's a bunch of baloney. I never learned to read or write French and I have yet to find a Frenchman I don't understand and who doesn't understand me. Don't think that I don't support every part of the Cajun culture, but how can you support the ignorance and egotism of these Cajuns trying to teach the unteachable?''