Drake LeBlanc, the Francophone Cowboy

He’s as comfortable on horseback as he is behind the camera. For his documentary Footwork, which recently premiered at the French Film Festival in New Orleans, the director, bilingual activist, and co-founder of Télé-Louisiane chose to shine a light on a world he knows well, that of the Black, French- and Creole-speaking cowboys in his state.
© Joseph Vidrine

Some wear impeccably pressed western shirts, belts with big, shiny buckles, jeans, and leather boots. These are the more traditional looks. Others opt for a more casual, urban style, with tracksuits or baggy pants, T-shirts, gold or silver chains, and Air Jordan sneakers. The former sport straw cowboy hats, while the latter wear baseball caps backwards. But whatever their sartorial allegiance, they all share the same passion for zydeco music, horses, and a little-known culture unique to Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas: Creole trail rides.

These outings take place every weekend. Popular in the countryside along the Gulf of Mexico, they are organized by Black social clubs such as the Cowboyz at Heart, the Young Stud Outlaws, and the Suga Shack Riders. The I-49 Riders, headquartered in Opelousas, hold an annual gathering around Mother’s Day, and last October, the Avenue Riders came together in St. Martin Parish to raise money as part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. The biggest trail rides can bring together between 2,000 and 3,000 riders! “Nou kité lamézon pou plis dis jou astèr-là,” says one of them in Louisiana Creole. “Nou fé prèsk 125 mil pendan lasmènn sir lê shval. Nou té gin in bon tem apé parlé avèk ènn-a-lòt, épi bwa épi manjé!” (“We left the house for more than ten days. We rode about 125 miles in a week. We had a great time, talking, drinking, and eating together!”)

Non-riders follow in pickup trucks carrying supplies, cooking utensils, and musical instruments. “This is nothing out of the ordinary for someone living in Southwest Louisiana,” says Drake LeBlanc, who grew up in Lafayette, halfway between New Orleans and the Texas border. “Whenever I visited my grandmother or my cousins, that’s what we did for fun, we went to a trail ride! Even if we didn’t have a horse, we’d go watch the riders, enjoy the barbecue, listen to zydeco, and dance! It’s always been a part of my life.”

© Télé-Louisiane
© Télé-Louisiane

Immersion in the French Language

Drake LeBlanc, 25, has a determined stare and braids framing his face. He lives, breathes, and works in English, French, and Creole, and flips easily between all three. After graduating from high school, he hosted Le FrancoMix, a radio show on KRVS, and interviewed French-speaking musicians visiting Louisiana. Surprised listeners would call the station asking for the name of this young man who expressed himself with such confidence in the language of Molière and Zachary Richard. “I was a pure product of the dual-language education system, capable of speaking fluently and working in French,” he says. “That got everyone talking, and people started contacting me to write subtitles and edit bilingual movies.”

After two weeks at a community college in Lafayette, Drake LeBlanc dropped out. “It wasn’t working,” he says. “I was studying business and my business teacher didn’t have a business!” He has been self-employed ever since. His parents passed down their love of images – his father shot videos for the local TV station, while his mother was a self-taught photographer at her friends’ weddings. Armed with a camera and an insatiable curiosity, he starting documenting his own environment. He captured local bands, including his friend Jourdan Thibodeaux’s group, dance parties in Lafayette, “the capital of zydeco,” along with the boom in bilingual schools and the rebirth of the French language in his state.

At a festival, thanks to mutual friends, Drake LeBlanc met Will McGrew, a polyglot the same age as him, who had just graduated from Yale with a degree in economics and political science. This encounter was the start of the next chapter. “We were from very different backgrounds, but we both wanted to help our community,” he explains. “He’s from New Orleans, from the city, and I’m from the country. Our experience of Louisiana is very different, but we had complementary skills. He was looking for ways to raise the profile of Cajun and Creole culture, while I was making videos and taking photos to share its stories.”

© Milton Arceneaux
© Joseph Vidrine

A Success Story in Louisiana French

This is how Télé-Louisiane was launched, with Drake LeBlanc as creative director and Will McGrew as CEO. Founded in 2018, the multimedia platform now employs a dozen people – such as videographers, photographers, journalists, and artists – and produces a weekly show in Louisiana French, La Veillée, broadcast on the local PBS affiliate station. Recent topics have included the state’s bid to become a full member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, and the opening of the first immersion program for a Native American tribe at the Ecole Pointe-au-Chien. Télé-Louisiane also produces a podcast, a cartoon for children, and a bilingual newspaper, Le Louisianais, published online in partnership with Country Roads Magazine.

Things have changed since the “lost generation.” That’s the name Louisiana gives to all those who didn’t learn French, and whose parents were punished for speaking their mother tongue at school. This was what happened to Drake LeBlanc’s mother and father. “Back then, people thought that their children would have a better chance of getting an education if they were ‘more American’ and spoke English,” says Drake LeBlanc, who regularly travels to Paris to promote Louisiana’s Francophonie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the France Télévisions network, and even the Elysée Palace. “But I don’t want people to focus on the past. I want them to look at what we’re doing icitte, asteur [ici, maintenant, ‘here, now’ in Louisiana French, Télé-Louisiane’s slogan].”

Recently, the young director turned his camera to another subject close to his heart: horses and the cultural heritage of his ancestors. This is the idea behind Footwork, a short documentary produced by Télé-Louisiane with the help of the French Culture Film Grant provided by #CreateLouisiana and TV5MONDE. “I’m Louisiana Creole, and Black cowboys are ubiquitous where I grew up,” he says. “But after I left high school, I realized just how little representation these horsemen had in American popular culture. Creoles, African Americans, and Native Americans have had a huge influence on this country’s history, the conquest of the West, and the emergence of cowboy culture. Yet they are invisible.”

© Télé-Louisiane
© Télé-Louisiane

The Return of the Black Rider

The archetypal Hollywood cowboy is White and English-speaking, like John Wayne. But this myth is far removed from reality. As early as the 1760s, French farms in the Lafayette region employed mounted slaves known as vachères, the equivalent of the Spanish vaqueros in Louisiana French. A century later, at least a quarter of the cowboys herding cattle in the West (and 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875) were Black. A large percentage of them spoke French, Creole, or Spanish, and many went down in history. Bass Reeves was the first African American deputy marshal west of the Mississippi, with more than 3,000 arrests to his name, while Nat Love was a famed gunfighter whose autobiography was recently translated into French.

Today, many saddle clubs in the United States keep the memory of these pioneers alive. In Louisiana, their trail rides blend English, French, and Creole. “It’s a tradition I’ve always thought was special, and I want to keep it going because I know how important it is in our culture,” says Drake LeBlanc. His great-grandparents were sharecroppers and used mules and horses to work the land. One of his cousins breeds and trains racers. He himself has been riding since he was a child, and bought his first horse, Koupé (coupé, “cut,” in Louisiana Creole), three years ago. “Country people like to socialize with their animals. Whenever we get a chance, we go out with the horses!”

Whether in the stables, around a bush track, or on a dance floor, Footwork brings together the ingredients that make this community so rich. Moments of joy with family and friends, as well as moments of sorrow. “With my film,” says Drake LeBlanc, “I want to encourage people to use modern tools to improve the ways we tell our story. It’s also a sign to visitors, showing them that our culture and language are still alive!”

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.