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UL's Caffery Award winner researches cultures shaped by external forces

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Posted at 1:38 PM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-05 15:00:29-04

By UL Lafayette Office of Communications and Marketing

René Champagne’s interest in how cultures adapt to environmental or political changes earned him this year’s Jefferson Caffery Research Award at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Champagne won the Caffery Award for his research paper “Cajuns, Creoles, and the Impact of Americanization on Ethnic Identity in Louisiana.” The paper examines the evolution of race and ethnicity as a result of factors such as assimilation, and the resulting impact on cultural identity.

Champagne is a senior double majoring in French and Francophone studies and in anthropology.

The Caffery Award recognizes scholarly research by students who use primary source materials archived in Special Collections at UL Lafayette’s Edith Garland Dupré Library. Dupré Library and the University Library Committee administer the competition.

The almost two dozen sources Champagne relied on for his award-winning paper range from the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development and The New York Times, to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Journal of Anthropological Research.

The references don’t mention, however, a source of another kind – inspiration. That would be tiny Galliano, La., where Champagne was born and grew up. The unincorporated community of several thousand people sits near the Gulf of Mexico in Lafourche Parish.

It’s a place where French is still spoken, but not as often as it once was; where large shrimp trawlers can be seen lining banks of the same Bayou Lafourche traveled a century ago almost exclusively by pirogues; and where erosion and hurricanes are carving away at the coastline.

It’s the sort of place that, in Champagne’s case, shaped a lifelong fascination with “monitoring cultural changes that have been created by outside influences.”

“The culture is still very present, but south Louisiana in general is decreasing rapidly in terms of both culture and land – which is so strongly tied to culture – and that’s a huge interest to me,” he said.

His curiosity casts a wide net – language, customs and traditions, hurricanes, land loss, and ways in which holidays are celebrated during a pandemic.

Champagne, who anticipates graduating in Fall 2021, is reviewing graduate schools. He plans to earn a master’s degree in anthropology; the field involves the scientific study of people, including their evolution, behavior and environments.

He then intends to earn a doctoral degree in anthropology, and envisions working as a researcher at a university.

“I want to observe culture that has been impacted by outside sources – the environment, political changes, an economic recession – and monitor changes and methods that can be used to mitigate or to adapt,” he explained.

Ambassador Jefferson Caffery and his wife Gertrude established the research award in 1967. A $500 prize accompanies the award.

Caffery was a member of the first class to enter Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, now UL Lafayette, in 1901. He served as an American diplomat for 44 years. His postings took him to 12 foreign countries on five continents.

The library’s Jefferson Caffery Louisiana Room is named in the diplomat’s honor.

Learn more about the Jefferson Caffery Research Award.

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