Asiminier: Folklore of the Missouri French Creoles

Asiminier: Folklore of the Missouri French Creoles is a project by animator Brian Hawkins, resulting in a feature-length documentary celebrating their distinctive culture. Interviews with scholars and people who were raised in Missouri’s Franco-American communities will describe the historical and cultural context in which the Creoles’ folkways were preserved for 300 years. The film’s central concern is to present the remaining cultural relics of the community in an engaging way. Folktales specific to the region will be presented as cut-paper animations. Storyboards for the animation of the tale “L’p’tsit Boeuf aux Cornes d’Or” are underway. Dennis Stroughmatt has agreed to narrate the tale in the original dialect, which he learned from native speakers in the early 1990s. Animated segments are planned for an otherwise undocumented tale told by native speaker Pete Boyer on a cassette in the state historical society archives.

The French settled in the Mid-Mississippi Valley in the late 17th century, and they developed a set of traditions and oral literature distinct from other North American Francophone societies. The majority of French Creoles in the Mid-Mississippi Valley were assimilated into the expanding American culture after the Louisiana Purchase; however, their dialect and folkways were preserved in rural mining communities into the early 20th century. The dialect was snuffed out once compulsory education was introduced in the Old Mines area in the 1920s. Children faced shame and corporal punishment for speaking French in school. These traumatic experiences resulted in the majority of Creoles refusing to teach their children their mother tongue; however, there are a few elderly members of the community who learned and remember the dialect of their ancestors.

Brian is working with the people of Old Mines, Missouri, to ensure that he is presenting the best examples of their language and culture. Linguists visited Old Mines in the 1930s and transcribed over seventy folktales told by native speakers of the regional French dialect. These tales were primarily told in the mining fields and were later shared with friends and family at home. The storytellers carefully honed their craft, and were held in high regard. Drawn from the same ancient European mythological stock as Perrault’s fairytales and influenced by West African folklore brought to the continent by slaves, the tales became highly specific to the environment and concerns of the Creoles living in Missouri. In these tales, kings are approachable figures who relax on their cabins’ wide veranda, and the Mississippi flows through their kingdom.

In addition to transcribing the folktales, scholars created a series of recordings throughout the 20th century, as they raced to document the specifics of the dying language. Ranging from wax cylinders to cassettes, these recordings will be used in the film, allowing viewers to experience the haunting quality of a cappella folksongs and the specific cadence of the Missouri Francophones’ dialect.

As the topic is of local, historical, and cultural import, Hawkins will work with Missouri’s department of education to distribute this documentary to schools. The film’s bibliography will help teachers develop lesson plans. French-immersion schools may find the documentary especially useful. To reach a wider local audience, he plans to screen the film at the Kansas City Public Library, and will reach out to the Chouteau Society/Jackson County Historical Society to discuss other screenings in Kansas City.

 

Brian Hawkins is an animator whose work is concerned with the vagaries of memory and historical narratives. Early in life, he was fascinated by ragtime, a syncopated precursor to jazz that developed at the turn of the twentieth century in his home state of Missouri. He began actively researching and performing the genre as a teenager, which resulted in an award-winning documentary about the composer James Scott.

His combined interests in music, the visual arts, and film led him to begin creating cut-paper, stop-motion animations while he was pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Kansas. Brian first read of the disappearing Franco-American communities of Missouri while completing his thesis, and he began seriously investigating the topic in the summer of 2016. In the course of his research, he discovered that he is descended from one of the first French settlers of Sainte Genevieve, Missouri