Gulf oil spill could push Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe to the point of no return

A French-speaking tribe, isolated in the Louisiana bayous for more than a century, grows anxious as the latest threat reaches its marshland.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

POINTE-AUX-CHENES, LA. -- The best thing about this place -- where the dry land of south Louisiana gives up, and marshes and bayous stretch away to the Gulf -- used to be that white people had so much trouble finding it. Here, a French-speaking Indian tribe has lived for more than a century, isolated from a world that had proved itself unfriendly.

But the oil found its refuge in a month and a day.

Now, this tribe is feeling an especially sharp version of Louisiana's despair. Its members worry that the oil will kill the marsh, and seethe at the idea that a bitter history now seems to be getting worse.

"They come in and take our land. Now, the oil's taking over. It's like it's happening all over" again, said Grace Welch, 26, in a stilt-legged house across the street from the bayou.

Across the plywood-floored living room, her father was fantasizing about killing Christopher Columbus.

"They shoulda hang him," said Sidney Verdin, 60. He meant the native people who encountered Columbus, the first scout of the civilization that would eventually drill an oil well 5,000 feet under the ocean and then not know how to fix it when it broke.

The Pointe-au-Chien tribe lives west of the Mississippi River mouth, more than 100 miles by water from the spot where the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank. Headed here from New Orleans, the road branches and narrows until it is two lanes hugging a cola-colored bayou where alligators hide. The tribe lives where the road ends.

On Tuesday, in the shaded space under a house on stilts, chief Charles "Chuckie" Verdin (pronounced "VUR-dan," a common name in the roughly 680-member tribe), 53, recounted watching the TV news when BP gave up its attempt to completely kill the leaking well.

"I just stayed there and looked at it," said the chief, a deeply tanned man wearing a camouflage T-shirt, as stray kittens played around his feet. "Going through my head [was], 'This is going to get a lot worse.' "

The tribe is not recognized by the federal government, and its name is proof of its still-murky history: The tribe's official name is French for "Dog Point." But others nearby asserted that the right name was the more genteel Pointe-aux-Chenes, "Point of Oaks," and that's the name on the local school. In Cajun French, both names sound like "Point ahw-shen."

The tribe says it has lived in this region for more than a century, one of a group of tribes that escaped into the bayous as Manifest Destiny roared by. But, for a century now, the swamp has done a progressively worse job at keeping bad things away.

In the early 1900s, Louisiana's growing oil industry managed to gain control of tribal lands for drilling wells. And flood-control measures reduced the sediment deposits that kept the land above water: Homes and cemeteries were abandoned.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company