November 18, 2009
For Laura Billiot, Brenda Dardar Robichaux and their peers among the Native American community in southern Louisiana, growing up meant shrimping, trapping and farming with family and friends. These long-standing traditions provided sustenance, camaraderie and a link with their past.
Before the May shrimping season, fishermen would line up their freshly painted boats to show off to the community. Robichaux, now principal chief of the Houma Nation based about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, has fond childhood memories of helping her father, Whitney Dardar, on his shrimp boat, though as a teen she would often protest the hard work and long hours. Dardar, now 73, still shrimps, but he is driven by passion rather than profit, since profits are now scant thanks to environmental degradation and competition from shrimp farms and bulk imports. He knows his grandsons will not follow in his footsteps but instead will likely work in the same offshore oil fields that have helped destroy the traditional Houma way of life.
Recently, environmental, industrial and economic factors have converged to make traditional subsistence practices unsustainable or even impossible for most Native Americans in this region. The main culprit is the rapid erosion of wetlands and hence the solid land that once sustained farming and provided habitat for nutria, mink, muskrat and other animals that Native Americans would trap for food and fur. The wetland loss is attributed largely to the oil and gas industry, which has cut thousands of miles of canals through the wetlands to service their offshore operations. The degradation has also long been caused by the canalization of the Mississippi River, confined by levees so it can no longer ramble and switch course from year to year, depositing sediment and replenishing land in the process.
The wetland erosion has meant the incursion of saltwater into previously fresher areas, making the land too salty for planting and impacting fish and shellfish. The increasing salinity has seriously impacted the oyster trade that used to be a major winter-time income for Natives. Marine organisms are also harmed by the dead zone created by nutrients from fertilizer funneled south from Midwestern farmland by the Mississippi River, feeding massive algal blooms that suck up oxygen in an 8,000 square mile section of the gulf.
Jamie Billiot, (no relation to Laura) remembers as a child admiring the primeval cypress rising out of the wetlands. Now, 20 years later, she calls it a “cypress graveyard”—the trees are killed by the saltwater incursion, she said.
The Houma and related tribes originally lived in the area to the north that now houses the Angola penitentiary. Their presence was first recorded by whites in the 1600s, and they moved south to this bayou in the 1700s through early 1800s to escape tensions between the English and French and with the Tunica tribe. After the Louisiana Purchase, U.S. officials listed the Houma as being “extinct.”
But in reality, the tribe remained as a cohesive, largely isolated community. They petitioned for recognition from the federal government in 1814 and have continued to press for recognition, but that petition has so far not been granted. In the 1930s, their life in southeastern Louisiana was drastically changed by the growing oil and gas industry.
Younger men have not followed their ancestors into shellfish harvesting and farming but are largely employed in the oil industry, “working offshore” as it is simply called here. Working shifts of multiple straight days on platforms, workers draw comfortable salaries. Largely for this reason, there is not much outright opposition or animosity to the oil industry, according to tribal members.
There are efforts underway by the Army Corps of Engineers, the oil and gas industry and other interests to restore wetlands and prevent continuing erosion. Environmental groups and Native Americans have been asking oil companies to pay to restore or mitigate the wetlands they have destroyed; they are specifically asking Shell to pay $362 million. In response, Shell officials have pointed to wetland restoration partnerships they have undertaken with environmental groups. But critics say it is way too little, too late. It is estimated that only 20 acres of wetlands have been restored since Katrina, compared to 3,000 acres lost in that same period.
“They could do it if they wanted to, but they just keep doing studies,” said Whitney Dardar.
Many experts and environmentalists say the only thing that could really preserve Louisiana’s bayou ecosystem into the future would be returning the Mississippi River back to its original free-flowing state by removing levees and allowing some areas to flood periodically.
“The Corps really cut off the plumbing of the river that’s the lifeblood of all south Louisiana,” said Joel Waltzer, a public interest lawyer who has worked on many environmental cases. “Unless you restore the plumbing, you can build levees to the sky, and it won’t do any good.”
Standing by Whitney Dardar’s weather-worn boat with a little patio of oyster shells, he and Laura Billiot talk nostalgically of their childhoods and their sadness at seeing their land and traditions disappear.
“We were poor, but we didn’t realize it,” said Billiot. “We had everything.”
She laments that building traditional homes with palmetto roofs is now rare, since the disappearing land has taken the palmettos with it, along with the moss they used to fill pillows. They also used to make their own feather pillows, but no more.
“Now you can’t hunt ducks and geese because of all the regulations, and with the wetlands gone there is nowhere to hunt them, anyway.”
Even with wetland restoration or other engineering projects, Houma and the related Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw tribe feel it is largely too late for their land, as big chunks literally disappear during each hurricane or major storm. About 75 of 100 households—including most of the young people—have left Isle de Jean Charles, a Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw community, in the past five years. As others throughout the region contemplate moving, they hope federal recognition of their tribes could help them obtain land and hence maintain their tribal identities and cultures.
Many see the irony in land literally disappearing out from under them.
“They pushed the Indians off our land, as far as they could to the very edge here, and now they’re taking even that away from us,” Billiot said.
Jamie Billiot, 28, has made it her mission to help young people remember their traditional culture, even if the disappearing land has already forced their families out of the area. At the Dulac community center where she is executive director in a town south of Houma, she coaches the Fighting Eagles Native American dance troupe and leads youth in history and language lessons, and in doing presentations for other community members. Many of the about 20 youth in her program have moved out of the area but return for the cultural sessions.
“It’s a lot harder for families to get together now, since they’ve moved all over,” she said, so young people don’t learn traditional practices or hear stories from their grandparents and extended family like they used to.
When she was a child, she said, the tribe might expect a major flood every four or five years. Now it feels as though that threat is always looming, and large areas of land dissolve in the wake of frequent storms and hurricanes—so much so that the Google Earth satellite image of the Dulac community center, taken not long ago, is hardly recognizable.
“People have been resilient for so long, and many of them never expected to leave,” Billiot said. “But staying gets harder and harder every year. A lot of people are ready to give up.”
She hopes the community center can continue to be an anchor. “Even if people move to higher ground, they can have a place to come back to.”
Research for this article was supported by the Institute for Justice and Journalism with McCormick Foundation funding.
Kari Lydersen is a staff writer for the Washington Post out of Chicago. To learn more about her work, visit karilydersen.com.