Gulf Waters Imperil Tribes' Way of Life In Louisiana Bayous
As Wetlands Shrink, Oil and Gas Jobs Replace Farming, Fishing and Trapping

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.

Dardar also still collects oysters in the winter, using a weather-worn boat draped in nets. He does it mainly to keep busy; the oyster haul has become so thin it is not lucrative.

"The oysters don't like the water too salty, so you have to go farther for them. They don't grow like they used to; a lot of the places they used to grow, the land is gone," he said.

Charles Verdin, 52, of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, says his people used to farm and raise livestock, but the eroding land and increasingly salty soil have ended that. He would like to see the dismantling of levees that block the flow of fresh river water into the bayou.

"People used to grow everything themselves; now you have to buy canned beans," he said. "And people used to have cattle, but now you don't, because you don't have any place to put them. We used to do for ourselves; now we have to rely on stores, and that means we have to get different jobs. It used to be everyone would share; now that's not around anymore. It just kills me."

Native American men used to make good money trapping minks, raccoons, muskrats and nutrias, large rodents that gobble marsh plants. But demand for fur has decreased, and the land where they used to trap has largely disappeared, so this tradition, too, has dwindled.

Chief Naquin once backed the stalwart elderly residents on Isle de Jean Charles who wanted to stay there. But because most younger people have already left, he wants to move the tribe to higher ground where members could build an intergenerational community, teach traditional practices, and invite tourists to buy their beadwork and food.

"At one time I didn't want to relocate -- I thought it would be like another Trail of Tears," he said. "But now I see that is a selfish viewpoint. It's only a matter of time before the island's gone -- one more good hurricane, and we'll be wiped out."

Davis thinks it is probably too late to save Isle de Jean Charles, but he hopes its fate prods officials to step up coastal preservation.

"I think there's a growing recognition we're all in the same boat," he said. "If you can't save the Mississippi Delta, why in heaven's name would you think anyone will get around to saving Long Island or the Chesapeake?"

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