Announcing the Irene Tenney Cajun and Creole Culture Collection

By Clark Noone, Archivist 

We’re excited to announce the new Irene Tenney Cajun and Creole Culture Collection at the Arhoolie Foundation! Featuring a wide array of materials documenting Cajun and Creole music, food, and history, the collection is a valuable resource on Louisiana culture and an important addition to our archive. 

The donation comes from the estate of the late Irene Tenney (1941-2021). Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Irene came to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar in 1973 and enjoyed a long career as a linguist, translator, and educator. In the late 1970s, she met Queen Ida Guillory and became a passionate student of Cajun and Zydeco music and dance.

In 1988, Irene started the Cajun Creole Cultural Center out of her home in Berkeley to promote Cajun music and culture in the Bay Area. For over a decade, she actively organized concerts, Cajun and Zydeco dances, and in-school educational programs, and published a vibrant newsletter of local and national Cajun/Creole happenings which she called “Gossip Gumbo.” Irene’s efforts were recognized by the government of Louisiana, which awarded her a certificate of appreciation for her efforts on behalf of Louisiana culture.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Irene also took many trips to Louisiana which she documented with her camera. In 1992, for instance, she photographed the blessing of a shrimp fleet by a Catholic priest in the small Acadian town of Delcambre – one of my favorite finds in the collection so far (see below). Irene’s photographs add a rich layer to the collection and show her commitment to understanding the communities whose music and culture she so enjoyed. 

Blessing of the shrimp fleet at Delcambre, Louisiana, August 1992. Photo by Irene Teneny.

We’re grateful for the help of Irene’s good friend Julieta McCarthy, who suggested the donation to us last fall and recently facilitated the transfer of the materials to the Foundation. According to Julieta, Irene had a restless intellect (she knew seven languages) and a passion for connecting with other cultures. As an Argentine-born linguist living in Berkeley, she found a home and a community in Cajun and Creole music. In an article from the early 1990s, Irene was asked why she had created a center for Cajun and Creole culture in California. She responded, “Because there wasn’t one in Louisiana to share with the world what the Cajuns and Creoles are all about: the joy of celebrating life through survival, friendship, hospitality, music and dancing. I promised them and myself I would put their cultures on the map outside Louisiana.” The Tenney collection is the result of Irene’s passion for Cajun and Creole culture, and we’re proud to provide a permanent home for it. 

So, what’s next for the collection? We have created a preliminary inventory of the boxes and hope to begin arranging, describing, and making materials accessible to the public later this year. We also hope to digitize portions of the collection that are particularly rare or unique, such as Irene’s photos, her “Gossip Gumbo” newsletters, and more. In the meantime, check out some highlights of the collection in the gallery below!

Stay tuned to Ain’t No Mouse Blog for more project updates from the Arhoolie Foundation archive.