Representatives from cultural organizations and businesses across the St. John Valley gathered in the Musée culturel du Mont-Carmel to discuss what they need to preserve their work and their culture in the coming years. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

GRAND ISLE, Maine — A lack of funding for cultural organizations, outmigration and language erosion are the biggest threats to the St. John Valley way of life, according to a group of people representing the area’s libraries, historical societies and museums.

The next few years will be precarious for the mostly volunteer-run and donation-funded organizations that desperately need money to support their work. Attracting cultural tourists has been a long-time goal for economic development, but selling the area as a tourist destination could commodify and dilute its culture all the same.

While bringing in some newcomers could certainly help, what the attendees really wanted was state money to support the work of preserving the Valley’s history and passing its traditions on to its future generations.

These conclusions came out of a July 13 meeting organized by the newly formed Cultural Alliance of Maine, which talked about the issues affecting the Valley’s distinctive historic cultures, including Acadian, Native American and Scottish-Irish heritages.

Distinct even from the rest of Aroostook County, the St. John Valley is home to some of the oldest and best preserved colonial cultures in Maine. Dialectic Acadian French, for example, is still spoken by a majority of people in most towns, even if it is less and less frequently a first language. 

About 60 percent of households in Grand Isle, Madawaska, Frenchville and St. Agatha reported speaking French at home, according to 2019 Census data. While the language tradition remains for now, there’s evidence that it’s slipping. Just nine years prior, the 2010 Census found that more than 70 percent of Madawaska families spoke French at home.

Many of the people attending the July 13 meeting grew up speaking French and living a distinctly Acadian lifestyle, and they’re watching that slip away among young people. Fewer children are learning Acadian French, and more are leaving the region for school and work, and not coming back. In Madawaska, the median age is 54.7, a full 10 years older than Maine’s median age.

“You find the tide of time is making it difficult to preserve your cultural and ethnic identity, but you find the tide of day-to-day life is doing the same,” Chace Jackson, Maine Senate President Troy Jackson’s son, said. He was representing the historical legacy and Scottish-Irish culture of Allagash.

The group agreed that stabilizing the libraries, historical societies and museums is central to preserving the culture itself, and could help spread the word about their unique part of the world.

But they feared simplifying the Acadian culture into a museum exhibit was an admission that their culture, which has persevered for hundreds of years, is a thing of the past. Plus, becoming a tourist hotspot isn’t exactly in line with maintaining the quiet everybody-knows-everybody community that’s so important to the Valley’s lifelong residents.

“You really have to find this balance … to encourage people to come up here, but not overdo it,” Greater Fort Kent Chamber of Commerce Director Donna Saucier said. “We don’t want to be Bar Harbor.”

The delicate work of cultural preservation is something Project Director Carla Pugliese hopes the Cultural Alliance of Maine can help with. The project formed last summer after several cultural organizations across the state realized there was relatively little COVID-19 relief funding available to them.

Pugliese urged the group to brainstorm programs that could be sustainable culturally and financially — things the Cultural Alliance of Maine could support. Making school credit available for young people who get involved with local arts and trades was a popular idea. So were Acadian French and cooking classes, which the group agreed it could sell to both newcomers and locals looking to get back in touch with their heritage.

Extracting better financial support from the state emerged as essential to the area’s cultural survival, with several people saying it would be impossible to rely on volunteers and donations to develop the new programming.

“The floors I’m washing, I’m washing myself,” Frances Albert Gendreau of the Madawaska Historical Society said.

Across the river, she said a similar organization in Edmundston, New Brunswick, is comparatively well-supported by the Canadian government.

“We all have our stories, we all have this and that, but where is the state of Maine?” Gendreau said. “Where is the state of Maine when I need them?”

Pugliese, who has been meeting with potential alliance members, said that the concerns she heard from people in the Valley — the need for funding, in particular — resonated with what she’s heard across the state.

The St. John Valley representatives were interested in collaborating with other small communities and could see a statewide coalition being a powerful force. But they worried whether the needs of the Valley would stand out in a group that already includes the Maine Historical Society, the Maine Arts Alliance and the Portland Museum of Art.

With the future of their cultures on the line, the group still hoped this could be the start of something important. Just having representatives from across the Valley in a room together felt like a step in the right direction to director of the Musèe culturel du Mont-Carmel Don Cyr.

“I’m a firm believer that the answers to our future lie in what our ancestors did in the past,” he said. “If you can get people from the Valley talking to each other about themselves … we could come up with some answers.”

A previous version of this story did not include Don Cyr’s first name and title.

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.