The 20,000 American Indians who live along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, descendents of the region’s earliest inhabitants, have proven their mettle again and again when faced with extreme challenges—hurricanes, dangerous work conditions, family separations, land loss and segregation. But when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded a year ago while drilling BP’s Macondo well, it left the peoples of the United Houma Nation, the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, and the Biloxi-Chitimacha’s Isle de Jean Charles Band, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and Bayou Lafourche Band confused, angry and stricken.
More than 200 million gallons of crude oil started spewing into Gulf waters last April, more than was dumped in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. It was the worst environmental disaster in the history of the U.S., destroying jobs, curtailing seafood consumption, and harming health. “We are a resilient people, but this is different from anything we’ve had to face,” said Brenda Robichaux, the former chief of the 17,000-member United Houma Nation.
Tribal members, speaking their uniquely French-and-Indian-tinged English, live along the deltas, shorelines, banks and narrow land ridges in six southern Louisiana parishes. Oil from the spill washed into their bays, inlets, estuaries, creeks and fragile marshlands, coating 320 miles of shoreline and critical wildlife habitat. The 680-member Pointe-au-Chien Tribe shares a narrow ridge called Isle de Jean Charles with the 684-member Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha. Here, hard work intertwines with cultural and social continuity. Like their neighboring American Indians, they weren’t allowed to attend public schools until the 1960s. This cultural isolation only deepened their connection to the land and the waters they ply for fish, oysters, crab and shrimp—their centuries-old supermarkets. “We rely on the land and water,” said Pointe-au-Chien Chief Charles “Chuckie” Verdin. “We plant gardens, raise farm animals, fish, trap, hunt and trade with each other.”
But their land is disappearing out from under them. The tribe, citing the loss of historical and cultural lands, including tribal cemeteries, Indian mounds, shell middens and traditional fisheries, filed a lawsuit in federal court on April 15. Their attorney was not available for comment at press time, but Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the tribe claims it has “an aboriginal land title claim” to the damaged areas. Levees constructed in the Mississippi River delta have converted about 2,300 square miles of marsh to open water, while coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion is blamed on the thousands of miles of canals dredged by the oil companies.
Their food is disappearing as well: Since the spill, people in both tribal communities are afraid to eat the seafood they harvest. “Now we have to buy groceries to replace what we cannot catch,” Verdin said. It has changed their fresh seafood diet, “to just what we have to get in the supermarket.”
Scientists say the Gulf fisheries harvest levels have yet to show the full damage done by the BP disaster, but it took four years after the Exxon Valdez spill before the commercially valuable herring fisheries affected by it collapsed—and they still haven’t recovered. “We’re not getting any fish, shrimp or crabs—no oysters this year either,” said Marlene Foret, chairwoman of the 1,200-member Grand Caillou/Dulac Band.
Kenneth Feinberg, who oversees BP’s $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Facility, offered a quick lump-sum payment of $25,000 to businesses and $5,000 to individuals late last year if they gave up their right to sue. But as Verdin said, “It could be years before we realize the full extent of our losses.” If they can prove damages greater than what the quick payment covers, they can apply for interim payments and retain their right to litigate. Or they can file a final payment claim for past, present and future damages. But documenting their financial losses has been difficult.
Feinberg told the tribes in local meetings last January he wanted to pay them for the value seafood and hunting plays in their daily living. But when he met with the fishermen again in late March he got an earful from some who said their claims were being denied with scant explanation. At that meeting, ear, nose and throat specialist (and former state senator) Dr. Mike Robichaux told Feinberg about the scores of patients across the Gulf Coast he has seen who are badly sickened by the oil spill, and can’t find local doctors to treat them. When Feinberg asked what proof existed to connect the illnesses to the spill, Robichaux handed over a large envelope of documents.
It was similar to the packet of documents he sent to Louisiana’s attorney general, and has requested a meeting with the attorney general and a contingent of sick patients so that they can detail their deteriorating health, and financial and personal despair. One despondent patient, “a man with numerous licenses and many talents…was thrown on the ash heap of BP and has absolutely no hope in sight,” said Robichaux. The man first lost his home, and has now lost his rental home. “He has reached the end of his rope and is contemplating suicide.”
Inhalation, ingestion and skin contact with the oil and dispersant chemicals pose direct threats to human health, reports The Journal of the American Medical Association. Hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and nonvolatile polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in crude oil can cause acute and chronic central nervous system effects and respiratory problems. Some are neurotoxic and are linked to leukemia, birth defects at high doses, or are considered “reasonably anticipated to cause cancer.” Burning the oil-generated particulates is associated with cardiac and respiratory symptoms and premature mortality.
Other chemicals in the oil and dispersants are associated with headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pains, heart and lung problems, high blood pressure, ear, nose and throat irritation, skin damage, blood problems, immune system damage, genetic damage and mutations, and reproductive and developmental damage.
By late July an unprecedented 1.8 million gallons of dispersants were applied in the Gulf, and there’s a strong likelihood, said Dr. Robichaux, that these chemicals are still being used. “This has been one of the best-kept secrets I have observed in my lifetime, and my patients are having to suffer the consequences.”
So too have wildlife. In the six months after the spill, more than 8,000 birds, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine mammals were found injured or dead. “The spill is from the Gulf floor, so contaminating the entire water column, from top to bottom, is a very grave concern for all marine life in the area,” said National Wildlife Federation Senior Scientist Doug Inkley.
Oil on the Gulf floor is of concern to locals too, as they face the upcoming hurricane season. “If we get floodwaters like we did from Rita, Gustav and Ike, we will get oil covering and contaminating our land,” said Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Band. “I don’t think they would let us come back for years to come. We’d probably all be homeless.”
Scientists say the long-term damage caused by the oil and the chemical dispersants used on the spill may not be known for years. Or as Verdin put it, “Our kids may never experience our way of life, as we have lived.”
Complicating this region’s tribal recovery efforts is their lack of federal recognition. The historical record dates their presence back to the 1600s, Louisiana recognizes them as tribal entities, and each tribe has applications pending for federal recognition. “The [federal government] sought to help the federally recognized tribes in the aftermath of the spill, but they weren’t directly affected,” Naquin said. “Yet here we are getting the brunt of everything. Recognition would allow us to receive help from those very agencies in the best position to help.”
Verdin’s hope, too, is for federal recognition, “so when our community is gone our people can move somewhere together and still exist.”
For more information, or to donate, visit the Louisiana Coastal Tribes Coalition, Inc. or the United Houma Nation.