In Oil Spill, Bayou Tribes Confront Yet Another Invasion

How many invasions can a community take? The Indians of Pointe-au-Chien in Southern Louisiana have endured centuries of colonization and exploitation--under the French, the Americans, and now, the oil industry.

By Michelle Chen Jun 09, 2010

How many invasions can a community take? The Indians of Pointe-au-Chien in Southern Louisiana have endured centuries of colonization and exploitation–under the French, the Americans, and now, the oil industry. But the tiny Pointe-au-Chien community, which is cut off from critical disaster relief resources due to a lack of federal tribal recognition, has never seen a combination of human and natural catastrophe quite like the BP oil spill.

The Washington Post reports on local efforts to put the disaster in historical perspective:

"I would say it’s probably the worst thing" in the tribe’s history, said chief Verdin. He meant because the oil has shut down the fishing grounds, which had sustained the tribe for decades. "It’s shutting down our way of life. . . . Even during the Depression, during hard times, you grow your garden, you fish. You still eat."

For members of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, the question now is whether to take a temporary job laying boom in the marsh for BP’s cleanup contractors. The chief had urged even bitter tribe members to do it.

Not because he thinks the boom works: In fact, the oil seems to be sneaking underneath it. But because he thinks BP’s generosity will eventually run out.

"Whatever you can get, get it now," the chief said.

The sense of hopelessness is surely deepened by the community’s economic dependency on the faceless corporation that caused the disaster. Reflection will come later; right now, people are just desperate to cobble together whatever help comes their way before the well runs dry.

If the federal government recognized the cultural and economic sovereignty of indigenous peoples, tribes might be able to weather environmental disasters by demanding that compensation take into account the weight of historical injustices. Currently, the Pointe-au-Chien Indians are at the mercy of a multinational company that seems more focused on limiting its liability than compensating victims.

The oil and gas industry has been encroaching on the Bayou habitat for decades now, and the tribes that inhabit the area, including the Houma and the Chitimacha, are oddly accustomed to living in the midst of perpetual crisis. But the fatalistic tone of one Houma tribal member says a lot about how this disaster might be the last they’ll ever face. Jamie Dardar, a crabber of Houma descent told the Miami Herald:

"The oil has locked us in… 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."

On Democracy Now!, Rosina Philippe of the Atakapa-Ishak community remained determined to hold onto their traditions, in part because the alternative was simply unimaginable:

We’re going to fight to stay here, because this is more than just our place, you know, like on a map, like a geographical location. This is our place in the universe. This is where we belong. This where we connect with nature. We’re part of this natural cycle. And if we weren’t here, we wouldn’t be who we are.

The plight of the indigenous communities magnifies the historical continuity between colonization and energy exploitation. Their identity is rooted in their sheer survival of one existential threat after another. But today, even they don’t know how this chapter of their story will end.

Photo: Creative Commons/New Orleans Lady