Gulf of Mexico Threatens Native Americans' Way of Life in Louisiana

U.S. officials estimate that up to 40 square miles of Louisiana wetlands disappear annually and that by 2040 the coast will have receded more than 30 miles.
U.S. officials estimate that up to 40 square miles of Louisiana wetlands disappear annually and that by 2040 the coast will have receded more than 30 miles. (Kari Lydersen/The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

GOLDEN MEADOW, La. "Every morning is like Christmas morning" during shrimping season, says Whitney Dardar, 73, a Houma Indian who loves fishing in the bayous of southwestern Louisiana as his forebears have done for two centuries.

The Houma and several other tribes, which are recognized by the state but not the federal government, settled in the outer fringes of Louisiana in the early 1800s, fleeing other hostile tribes and U.S. military forces farther north.

Now, the tribes are losing their land again -- this time to the Gulf of Mexico, as thousands of acres of wetlands vanish each year, hurricanes do increasing damage without these marshy buffers, and saltwater intrudes into the bayou water and soil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 40 square miles of Louisiana wetlands disappear annually and that by 2040 the state's coastline will have receded more than 30 miles.

For Native American families it is nearly impossible to farm, fish and trap the way they used to because of the saltwater intrusion and disappearing land; high fuel costs and low market prices have also made the shellfish industry unsustainable.

Isle de Jean Charles was home to about 75 families before being pummeled by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008. Now only about 25 households remain. When the state installed a 72-mile string of hurricane-protection levees around southwest Louisiana in 2002, Isle de Jean Charles was not included.

"We got chased out by the whites; now we're getting chased back," said Chief Albert Naquin, 62, who grew up on the island and heads the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which is related to the Houma. "At one time, it was man-made removal; now it's Mother Nature's removal."

But humans are largely to blame for wetlands erosion. The building of levees along the Mississippi River prevents it from naturally flooding and meandering along, depositing sediment and building wetlands in the process. In decades past, marshes were seen as areas to be filled in and developed rather than preserved. The cutting off of freshwater flows from the Mississippi River and the erosion of wetlands mean that saltwater from the Gulf moves up into coastal waterways and lands.

"Saltwater intrusion didn't happen because one government entity or one rich landowner or tribal elder decided to shut down the process of delta building; it was done incrementally as part of a pervasive culture that viewed wetlands as wastelands," said Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. "The legacy of those decisions, programs and values is still very much with us. No place is it coming up as starkly as in south Louisiana, and for no culture more clearly than for the Houmas."

The offshore oil and gas industry's 10,000 miles of canals have speeded up the deterioration of the marsh, many scientists and locals believe. Last year, 30 groups including the Louisiana Shrimp Association and Greenpeace USA asked Shell Oil to pay the state nearly $362 million to compensate for wetlands loss. In response, the company has pointed to its ongoing wetlands-restoration partnerships.

Many of Louisiana's Native Americans are ambivalent about the fossil fuel industry. They blame it for destroying their land, but it also provides well-paying offshore jobs to locals, jobs that have become even more important as subsistence lifestyles fade.

"You see the effect it has on our communities, but at the same time it employs a lot of people," said Dardar's daughter Brenda Dardar Robichaux, chief of the United Houma Nation. "They should be able to employ a lot of people and still be good stewards of the water."

Whitney Dardar plans to continue shrimping as long as he is physically able -- but for love, not money. He would never recommend the life to young people, and many of his younger male relatives work on the offshore oil rigs.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company