Gulf oil spill threatens Louisiana Native Americans' way of life

The Miami HeraldJune 1, 2010 

There is an ages-old expression among the people of southern Louisiana's Indian bayous. "Pas tout la," 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 la," 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."

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.

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