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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.

On Tuesday, tribe member Russell Dardar, 42, took a flat-bottom boat out to one of those old cemeteries, now marked only by a white metal cross in the marsh grass. It was ringed by floating tubes of oil-absorbing boom.

"If the oil comes in, it's going to kill everything," Dardar said. "If it kills the grass, the roots [won't] hold the little bit of land you have left" around the graves.

It's unclear who exactly is buried there in the mud: Tribal rumor holds that one of the dead is a girl who, decades ago, was killed when tribal youth were playing "Indians and white people." Her friends were pretending to burn her at the stake -- it's unclear which role she was playing -- and accidentally did it.

What is certain is that the people buried here lived in a time when this land was high enough to support dry-land cattle farms and cane farms, instead of cranes and shrimp. In the bow of the boat, Dardar's son Russell, 17, looked up from his electronic music player.

"Wish I lived in that time," he said, and was quiet again.

The elder Dardar turned the boat away from the cross, opened the throttle and zoomed through channels out toward the Gulf. But after 10 minutes, he suddenly killed the engine.

"What's this, then?" There were rainbow-colored blobs floating on the surface of the water. Dardar leaned over and scooped some of them into a baby-food bottle, to be tested later. "It's farther [into the marsh]. I didn't see it yesterday."

Five minutes further on, worse news: thick patches of oil in the grass, the stalks stained black for several feet in a row.

"I would say it's probably the worst thing" in the tribe's history, said chief Verdin. He meant because the oil has shut down the fishing grounds, which had sustained the tribe for decades. "It's shutting down our way of life. . . . Even during the Depression, during hard times, you grow your garden, you fish. You still eat."

For members of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, the question now is whether to take a temporary job laying boom in the marsh for BP's cleanup contractors. The chief had urged even bitter tribe members to do it.

Not because he thinks the boom works: In fact, the oil seems to be sneaking underneath it. But because he thinks BP's generosity will eventually run out.

"Whatever you can get, get it now," the chief said.

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