Fish and Oil: Sorrow, Survival and Solidarity in Louisiana's Bayou

I spent last week in southern Louisiana, in a region I had never
visited before.
My first impression was one of sadness; a long profound melancholy
seemed to reside in the landscape: the spires of drilling rigs, the
rising murky water, the stagnant sinking marshes, the faint mix of
saltwater and burning oil from the Gulf, the rusting pipelines and dead
wetland trees. Taken together, there was a sense that something
terrible had been occurring there for many years.

I spent last week in southern Louisiana, in a region I had never
visited before.
My first impression was one of sadness; a long profound melancholy
seemed to reside in the landscape: the spires of drilling rigs, the
rising murky water, the stagnant sinking marshes, the faint mix of
saltwater and burning oil from the Gulf, the rusting pipelines and dead
wetland trees. Taken together, there was a sense that something
terrible had been occurring there for many years. Something
fundamental, something which preceded the current oil disaster,
something irreversible and wrong.

"Fish and
oil, fish and oil." I heard this strange and perverse couplet many
times during the week - over fried shrimp dinners, on boat
tours, in community forums, and walking along the desolate beach on
Grand Isle and the flooded Isle de Jean Charles. The utterance had the
ring of prophecy, of brute reality, of what shouldn't have been the
case, but is, nonetheless. Ironically, the coastland of Louisiana
is the most productive seafood estuary
in the country, while the coast and adjacent Gulf waters contain the most
offshore oil patch
. Now, the
seafood is contaminated, the oil is spreading in the marshlands, and
despite the ongoing calamity,
the oil industry is fighting tooth and nail to reserve the right to
keep drilling off the coast.

I was with
a delegation of
indigenous and campesino leaders
the Ecuadorian Amazon
, who know all too well about fish and oil.
They have been suffering for the last forty years as a result of
Texaco's (now Chevron's) oil contamination in their rainforest
They had come to meet with the Houma and Atakapa tribes, Native
Americans who have been living off the water and land of southern
Louisiana for hundreds of years. They had come to learn firsthand
about the oil disaster plaguing the Gulf Coast, and to share their own
lessons from the Amazon
on how to cope with the lasting,
pernicious impacts of severe oil pollution.

was a kind of redemption of industrialized globalization.
Communities devastated by the impacts of a bloated global industrial
growth model coming together to share in pain and hope. I feel honored
to have been a part of the encounter, and outraged to have seen how
much has been destroyed. And I feel compelled now to share what I

Impressions from the Bayou

Mud-stained and rain-soaked American
flags droop over rickety
abandoned houses. Telephone poles rise out of marshlands near
underwater graveyards. Oil clean up crews and bird
rehabilitation units work on converted seafood loading
Government officials speak of "an invasion of oil." Native
American women speak of the next great storm. The
paperwork and bureaucracy of the British Petroleum
claims process punishes locals. Miles of
snaking orange boom lies abandoned on desolate beaches. The heavy
of industrial language is spoken over gumbo dinners: boom, sand berm,
skimmer, rock levy, relief well, spill zone, oil sheen, treatment plan,
containment dome, top kill, controlled burn, chemical dispersants.

Houma and the Atakapa people told us of their dreams, of their fears,
and of what is at stake in the bayou: Great Egrets, Laughing Gulls,
Blue Heron, Muskrats, Alligators, Blue Crabs, Speckled Trout, Black
Drum, Garfish, Tilapia, Amberjack, Sheepshead, Shark, Red Snapper,
Grouper, Pompano, the spring breeding grounds of fish, crab, shrimp,
whales, crawfish boils, fishing rodeos, memories, the sweetness of the
early morning sun before a day of fishing- an entire way of life.

A Century in the Bayou

more than forty miles offshore, the oil migrates past the barrier
islands into the marshlands, clinging to weeds and wings, riding in on
the weather, sinking to the sea floor, floating to the surface,
arriving on the beaches and in the bayous, mixing with sand, algae,
fish. And the media is screaming, "the horror, the horror." But
strangely, and unfortunately, the BP disaster is not the root of the
problem - nor is BP just the "bad seed" of the oil industry. An
industrial ghost has haunted the bayou for the last century.

One can
see it in the warm, terrible glow of gas flares silhouetted by
the darkened, stormy sky. One can see it in the spires of offshore
rigs and platforms. One can see it in the eyes of the confused,
screaming birds with oil-soaked wings. One can see it in the flooding
of the Isle de Jean Charles, the sinking of the marshlands, and the oil
channels and pipelines cutting through the Bay of Baptiste. One can
see it in the sheen of oil coating the bays and choking the marshes.

there is much that goes unseen - the cloak of time is often
blinding and the ghost of industry has used it well, working slowly and
methodically over the last century in its profitable destruction of the
gulf coast ecosystem.

started more than a
century ago when the Mississippi was levied
the teeth
industrial ambition. The levies starved the wetlands of fresh water
flow and halted the needed deposits of river sediments. Soon, as a
consequence of the depleting sediments the
marshlands began to sink and flood. Then came the oil industry in the
1920's and 1930's, cutting access canals and laying pipelines, which
eliminated the natural barriers to saltwater flow and increased the
salinization of the waters to a perilous degree.

Today, due to all of this industrial engineering, a phenomenon known as
saltwater intrusion
poses a grave threat to the marshlands, which thrived for eons on the
harmonious balance of Mississippi River fresh
water and Gulf of Mexico salt water. The oaks, palmetto,
cyprus, and persimmons, which once flourished in the bayou, have died.
marshlands continue to sink as a result of the extraction of
crude oil from the depths of the earth.

the last century, the wetland ecosystem of the Gulf has transformed
from a stunningly pretty and pristine seafood estuary to a salty,
sinking place - vulnerable to storms, hydrologically off-balance, and
now contaminated with oil and toxic chemicals.

How did this

I posed this very
question to Michael Dardar, a leader of the Houma
people, during a boat tour of the Bay of Baptiste. He told me, "In
Louisiana the oil industry creates the rules of the game. They don't
need to justify themselves. They just play by their own

The oil industry has a death-grip on
Louisiana politics. Over the last century the industry has managed to
gut state environmental regulations to such a degree that essentially
all oil-related waste is legally considered "non-toxic" in Louisiana.
This has helped make the state a dumping ground for
oil-related refuse from across the country. Filled with heavy metal
and carcinogen-laced oil sludge, cargo trucks and trains barrel down
the highways and railroads of America, aiming for their final
the territory of the Houma people, who have been living off the land
and waters of the Louisiana coast for centuries. Now their territory
pock-marked by oil pits and refuse heaps. Toxic dust blows into the
homes of the Houma people in the dry season, while poisons leach into
the communities during the wet, stormy months.

The Houma people have been fighting for legal recognition of
since shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when
America paid 15 million dollars to the French for 828,800 square miles
of land, encompassing 14 states. Most recently, it has been the oil
and gas industry that has served as the greatest obstacle to the federal recognition
that the Houma have sought for nearly two centuries. Lawyers for the
industry have repeatedly
petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deny the United Houma Nation
federal recognition.
The unspoken reasoning: federal recognition would give the Houma more
power to
defend their own lands against oil industry abuse, and potentially
create precedent for the Houma to hold the industry
accountable for past profiteering and abuses of their land and rights.

Words from the Bayou:

yesterday I received an email from Michael Dardar, the Houma leader who
accompanied us on the boat tour of the contaminated Bay of Baptiste.
He expressed how heartened the Houma people were to have met with the
Ecuadorians. He also included an essay that he had written, entitled: The Beginnings of
Sorrows: The Houma People and The Resource Wars
in blood and memories, the essay recounts the centuries of struggle of
the Houma people and looks at other indigenous struggles over rights,
resources, and land.

The first section, entitled Shadows of the Past, delves into
the meaning of a recently-created
symbol that goes by the same name. As Michael writes in the

"The Shakchi-Houma or Red Crawfish has always been and
continues to be the emblem and icon of the Houma Nation. "Shadows of
the Past" has become a different symbol for Houma people, a more
personal one, telling our modern tale of conflict and survival.

Dardar quotes Louise Billiot, who designed the symbol, as she describes
the meaning behind the red, yellow, black, and white

"Yellow represents the morning sun when
our fishermen, in boats, would leave home for their day's catch of
seafood... black represents the evening sky when our fishermen would
return home from the day's work on the water... the line between the
represents the horizon as it is seen out on the water with reality
above and its reflection below... the white boat represents our Indian
people's boats and pirogues used for shrimping, hunting and
trapping... the larger red boat behind the smaller boat represent the
recreation fishermen and the oil industry boats that have taken over
the waters that provided the living for our families... the red diamond
shape represents the riches of our lands taken since the oil companies
invaded our waters... the shape of the white oil derrick inside the
diamond represents the oil rigs that have cut into our homeland
bringing salt water intrusion and coastal erosion."

salt, a sinking marsh, and the sheer strength and resilience
of the Houma people. I have never been so saddened and inspired. Over
my life I have seen the way a soul can break under the weight of abuse,
the way a spirit can succumb after years of destruction, the way hope
can fade when a people are abandoned. But in the bayou of southern
Louisiana, I saw an unbreakable dignity - a spirit that declared:
there is beauty in the world and it is worth fighting for.

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