Gulf Oil Spill Threatens Louisiana Native Americans' Way of Life

Tuesday, 01 June 2010 10:39 By Joseph Goodman, The Miami Herald | name.

 There is an ages-old expression among the people of southern Louisiana's Indian bayous. "Pas tout là,'' they say with smiles.

"Not all there,'' it means.

As in, "not right in the head.''

This is how the Native Americans of Pointe-Aux-Chenes have come to describe one of the guilty parties of the worst oil spill in American history. "Pas tout là,'' they say with a grin when asked about BP.

The Indians here have borne the consequences of the work of oil and gas companies for nearly 100 years, but the oil that is now only a short boat ride away has the potential to slam a death nail into this fishing village and the cultural identity of Indians who have populated it for centuries.

They are angry, yet they speak of BP with a smile. The oil is coming, but still they smile and work and party down on the bayou.

"People here are just laid back and we enjoy life,'' said Lora Ann Chaisson, a tribal councilwoman of the United Houma Nation, a state-recognized tribe whose 17,000 members live in a six-parish area. "We know the oil is there, but we're still going to enjoy life.''

Their Home

The Houma's English is saturated with a French-Indian culture all their own. Tiny Pointe-Aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles are home to members of the Chitimacha tribe -- whose ancestors moved into the area 2,500 years ago -- and the Houma. They work the waters of Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes and its nearby bays and lakes for shrimp, fish, crabs, oysters and crawfish.

Their way of life likely will soon change. On Saturday, oil released into the Gulf of Mexico from the spill that began April 20 was three miles inside Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes. It has already ruined oyster plots, soiled crab traps and cut off shrimp trawlers from some of this area's best fishing grounds.

"The oil has locked us in,'' said Jamie Dardar, a crabber and Houma Indian. "Everyone is on top of each other now and you can't even drive a boat through there for all the traps.

"But it's only a matter of time before they shut it completely down. It's only a matter of time. This oil is just going to finish us.''

BP's oil could be the end for the current livelihoods of Dardar and many other Houma, but the beginning of that end for Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes began long ago. The oil that moves deeper into the bayou each day is being hurried along by saltwater currents that rush unabated through an eroding landscape destroyed by the actions of oil and gas companies over the decades.

Saltwater intrusion into areas like Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes began in the 1930s when oil and gas companies acquired land in southern Louisiana. Over the years, businesses like the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company dug ditches and dredged canals through the swamp to pipe gas, explore for oil and mark property lines.

Saltwater now rushes unchecked through those cuts and it is slowly killing the wetlands. In the past 80 years, southern Louisiana has lost about 2,000 miles to the Gulf. Here in Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes, pristine land populated by Houma and Chitimacha is shrinking and each hurricane displaces more and more families.

Pointe-Aux-Chenes means Oak Point, but most of the oaks that once branched out across the bayou are gone. A recent trip through the wetlands aboard a small flat-bottom fiberglass boat offered a first-hand account of saltwater intrusion and its devastating effects.

"Right here there used to be a grocery store -- way out here in the water,'' said Anesie Verdin, the boat's captain and a 63-year-old Chitimacha who fishes these waters every day for shrimp, oysters and crabs despite battling throat cancer.

Treatment of the disease has left Verdin with a delicate and raspy voice and he strained to speak over his tiny vessel's outboard motor. Reverently, he pointed to a cemetery in the middle of the marsh. A thin white cross stood amid roseau cane. Cemeteries long ago abandoned by Chitimacha dot wetlands throughout Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Verdin and others tell of protecting the burial grounds with shotguns against the dredging equipment of oil companies.

Further down the bayou is land once owned by Verdin's grandfathers, eaten away by saltwater. Verdin complained about oil and gas companies taking advantage of his family's and his people's tribal lands. He claims his grandfathers were tricked long ago into selling most of their property to the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, now owned by Conoco-Phillips.

"My grandfathers did not know how to read or write,'' Verdin said. ``The oil company would come down and tell you they wanted to lease your property for a lot of money, $25, but what they were signing, they were actually selling the land.''

Old Stories

Verdin's grandson Adam, 20, sat aboard the oyster boat while Verdin told stories of the bayou. Adam Verdin recently attended a rudimentary hazardous-materials training class to help clean oil out of the marsh.

"I'm not too happy about it because if they would have taken the proper care to prevent this, then my grandson wouldn't have to be going out there to fight the oil to save the wetlands,'' Anesie Verdin said. ``That's not fair. The worst part is the younger generation will not be able to fish or nothing and they won't be able to see nothing because it will all be gone.''

On a sticky Friday night on the bayou, the Verdin family and their friends sit inside a small open-air seafood processing station in Pointe-Aux-Chenes and tell stories and jokes on the water's edge. Laughter carries across a small canal filled with brackish water calm as a sleeping swamp dog. The jokes are laced with thinly veiled double entendres.

"You've got to suck the head and eat the tail,'' one woman yells as a visitor inspects a tray of perfectly prepared boiled crawfish.

Everyone screams with laughter.

Shrimp trawlers outfitted for fishing the bayou and small flat-bottom boats used for harvesting oysters and crabs are tied off only a few feet from the celebration. It's an all-you-can eat bayou buffet.

Huge buckets of boiled hard-shell crabs and crawfish -- only hours ago removed from the bayou -- are shared.

Picked over shells are stacked high. Fried soft-shelled crabs are reserved for this night's visitors. Beer flows. The smell of crab boil drifts out into the night.

These nights could soon be lost.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 10:43