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

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; A01

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.

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.

So on Tuesday, about half of the tribe's men crowded into the Live Oak Baptist Church for a required training class. But the lesson, supposed to start at 9 a.m., was delayed for two sweaty hours.

Computer problem, somebody said. It was a lesson in the control they had already lost.

Up the road, in their house on stilts, father and daughter Sidney Verdin and Grace Welch had already found ways of dealing with the outside world's latest insult. Verdin had settled on spite.

"The oil that is coming out, I'm glad to see that," he said, because it meant an oil company would suffer. "I hope it comes out for two years."

Across the room, Welch has a 5-year-old son and an education that stopped in the 11th grade. She knows a lot about the marshes around here: Shrimp swim low during the day, so you've got to wait a few seconds after tossing out the net, and let it sink.

But she doesn't really know how to do anything else. And, she said, she hadn't seen any oil in the particular spots she sets her traps.

"I went crabbing anyway," she said, despite the ban.

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